For nearly three years, Alexandria police officers have been using body cameras, as well as cameras in their squad cars.
And according to Alexandria Police Chief Scott Kent, they are a valuable tool and resource for his officers.
“It took some time to adapt, but now they have become routine,” Kent said. “Our officers now embrace them and have found them to be valuable.”
He said attorneys also really like them as it takes any questions of doubt out of the equation as “the information is all right there on the camera.”
Kent feels there are less cases ending up in the courtroom because all the evidence needed clearly shows what happened. Cases are being settled out of court, he said.
Chief Kent isn’t the only police chief in Minnesota in favor of using body cams, as they are often referred to. According to a survey conducted by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the vast majority of Minnesota police chiefs – more than 80% – say they support the use of body-worn cameras by officers.
The survey, distributed via email over the last six weeks to more than 300 Minnesota police chiefs, including Kent, also found that more than 100 municipal police departments around the state now use body cams. In addition, the use of them has nearly doubled since a similar survey was conducted five years ago by the chiefs association.
“More agencies, large and small, are deploying body-worn cameras (or considering their deployment) to gather crucial evidence and enhance transparency with their communities,” said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. “But with the benefits of body-worn cameras, comes significant financial challenges.”
Of the 214 chiefs who responded to the survey, 95 of them said they do not have body cams and of those 95, 65% said it was a lack of resources as to why they don’t.
According to the survey results, the high price tag for comprehensive audits, which are required by the state, have prevented agencies and city councils from purchasing the technology. It has also forced some agencies, the survey found, to discontinue use of them or made them think twice about the long-term return on the investment.
Potts said the challenges are particularly great for small agencies within the state. The state Legislature, he said, considered a bill that included $1 million in funding annually for local agencies to acquire body-worn cameras this past session.
However, he said the chiefs association was extremely disappointed that the legislation was not included in the final public safety bill. Especially, he added, at a time when there are unprecedented calls for greater transparency in policing.
“We believe the more police officers with body-worn cameras equates to greater accountability for law enforcement; that’s what our communities desire and deserve,” Potts said. “We will continue to look for solutions to make acquiring the technology more affordable for agencies of all sizes and share best-practices with our members.”
For Kent, having not only body cams, but also cameras in the squad cars along with the technology and programming that goes along with it, is an added value to his department.
The Alexandria Police Department contracts with Axon, a company that makes body cams, as well as vehicle cameras and tasers. And all three devices communicate with each other. For instance, if a body cam has not already been turned on, when an officer deploys a taser, the camera automatically turns on. Additionally, when officers trigger their lights and sirens in their squads, the vehicle camera and body cam, if not already on, will automatically be turned on.
Another benefit, according to Kent, is the use of evidence gathering.
He said if a burglary is reported from a garage, for example, and the victim knows a lawn mower was stolen but has to find information about the make and model, the officer(s) responding can provide a link to the victim where they can upload the information at a later date. Kent said, for example, the victim could go on Amazon or some other website, and find the exact mower and then upload that link through Axon software. Any and all information uploaded by a victim then gets stored and if needed, used as evidence.
Having the ability for victims of any crime to upload additional information that can be used as evidence is an added benefit of using the Axon equipment, said Kent.
In October of 2018, the Alexandria City Council approved a five-year contract with Axon for the body cam equipment and software. The city paid $44,478 for the first year and then $37,836 each year for the remaining four years. The contract ends in late 2023.