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Local law enforcement looks to adopt body cameras

Agencies are testing technology and wading through the issues

Amid a national outcry, the Durango Police Department is moving toward purchasing body cameras, with plans to roll them out department-wide in 2016 or 2017.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado State Patrol also are considering adopting body cameras. Fort Lewis College police have had body cameras for more than four years.

“They work fine,” Fort Lewis College Police Chief Arnold Trujillo said. “We’ve had a good experience with them. We use them for any contacts – traffic contacts, victim interviews, witness interviews. We use them all the time.”

While the DPD has not had an officer-involved shooting since 2000, pressure is mounting for law-enforcement agencies around the nation to adopt body cameras after a rash of controversial deaths.

“We do have body cameras that our traffic officers wear,” said Lt. Ray Shupe, a Durango police spokesman. “But we are in the middle of researching body cameras for the department right now and policies to implement that.

“We are looking to go in that direction.”

Body cameras raise a host of questions, not only for police accountability but for privacy among those police encounters on a daily basis. For instance, would a video of police interviewing a distraught survivor be archived? And would that video be subject to disclosure according to Colorado’s public records laws? What about when an officer enters a private home to mediate a domestic dispute?

Yet pressure to use body cameras is becoming irresistible in the wake of several highly publicized incidents. The shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in North Charleston, South Carolina, initially was reported by the police officer as the result of a scuffle. Only after a bystander’s video surfaced was the officer’s account contradicted. The officer, Michael T. Slager, soon was charged with murder.

The names in the controversial incidents are becoming almost a mantra. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice.

Video has proved useful in sorting the truth from competing narratives in some of these cases. In others, the absence of video footage has been glaring and increasingly viewed as untenable by critics and law-enforcement agencies.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the positives of adopting body cameras will outweigh the negatives.

“It is positive, because when people know they’re being recorded, they tend to behave better,” he said. “That holds true for the public; it holds true for police officers, as well.”

The Colorado State Patrol also is looking at adopting body cameras.

“We are definitely interested in going that route. We just have to make sure that it’s feasible for what we do,” said Capt. Adrian Driscoll, a CSP spokesman.

CSP is looking for a system that can’t be erased or altered or turned off at an officers’ discretion.

“We want one you can’t change,” Driscoll said.

The Sheriff’s Office is testing different models of body cameras to see what works best and offers the best value, said Capt. Todd Hitti, patrol division commander.

“We are trying to go to them, but it’s a process,” he said. “We’re trying to do what’s best cost-effectively.”

County-jail personnel already wear body cameras to record interactions with inmates.

Only one Durango police officer currently uses a body camera: Officer Ron Wysocki, who patrols on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The department found options for motorcycle-mounted cameras wanting, so the agency purchased a camera system for use with motorcycle patrols as a stop-gap solution several years ago.

“I like the cameras,” said Wysocki, a 20-year-veteran of the department. “For (internal investigations) and things like that, you can just watch the video and be exonerated.”

It’s also helpful in court hearings for traffic citations, Wysocki said. Sometimes, the defendant won’t know Wysocki has the encounter on video.

“The judge can watch it,” Wysocki said.

Wysocki’s camera is about 8 years old, and its capabilities are limited. On a busy day, Wysocki has to swap out the memory card, which holds only 4 gigabytes of data. The video doesn’t sync well with the audio. And perhaps most significantly, Wysocki must turn the camera on and off manually before and after each traffic stop by pressing a small button.

“If you’re in a hurry, sometimes that’s not easy,” he said.

The video is downloaded and retained for at least 190 days, the same length of time as for the department’s dashboard videos from patrol cars. Footage can be tagged with a case number and retained for as long as necessary, Shupe said.

Each officer’s Taser also has a camera that records when the less-lethal weapon is fired.

The earliest Durango police could deploy cameras is late 2016, and it may not happen until 2017, Shupe said. That’s because the department hasn’t yet settled on a specific technology, and it may be difficult to meet the city government’s budgetary deadlines for a quicker deployment.

A camera system may necessitate hiring an IT person just to manage it, Shupe said.

Mayor Dean Brookie said body cameras can provide “protections for citizens, and in my mind, for law enforcement, as well.”

Brookie said the City Council had not discussed body cameras or directed the police department to adopt them.

State lawmakers are working to make it easier for departments to buy body cameras. A bill that would create a grant program to disburse federal funding and a study group on the camera’s use passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday and was forwarded to the Appropriations Committee. The legislation already has passed the House.

“Law enforcement agrees that body cameras are helpful,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. “The body camera will help support them when allegations are made that can’t really be substantiated.”

One fear officers have, Shupe said, is that they’ll be placed under suspicion if a camera malfunctions and fails to record an incident.

Despite the thorny issues, body cameras appear to be inevitable.

“It shows what the officer sees, and it can provide a good insight into how they go about their business,” Roberts said. “These days, with all the incidents we’ve seen, that’s becoming more important.”

cslothower@durangoherald.com



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