Burnsville police give body cams a tryout

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2012 - 11:23 PM

Officials say videos end disputes about how police handle encounters with suspects.

A Burnsville police officer makes a traffic stop and spots a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia on the center console. The driver gets two citations. And everything is recorded by the officer's AXON body camera.

The next day, the driver calls Police Chief Bob Hawkins to complain that the officer was rude and unprofessional and had no valid reason to stop the car, much less search it. When the driver is told the video tells a different story, he abruptly hangs up.

"Hello? Hello? Done," the chief recalled earlier this week, almost 18 months after about one-third of the department's 75 sworn officers began wearing the body cams.

Hawkins said the cameras, the first of their kind being used in Minnesota, have been "extremely successful for us in a number of different ways." Numbers on costs savings aren't yet available, but anecdotally they have saved the department thousands of dollars in staff time and overtime.

Take the traffic stop, for example. "In the past, if somebody made a complaint like that, it's going to launch an internal affairs investigation," Hawkins said. That could take 10 to 15 hours of investigators' time, he said.

Bystanders often record part of an incident on their cellphones and believe that tells the whole story, Hawkins said. In contrast, the body cams record the entire incident, often giving a clearer picture of what really happened.

Elliott Knetsch, city attorney for Burnsville and several other Dakota County communities, said a defense attorney called him about a case in which a cellphone video appeared to record an officer shooting a disruptive man with a Taser once to subdue him and again after he was on the ground and handcuffed.

"I got you on this man, Elliott," the defense attorney told Knetsch.

But the officer's body cam video clearly showed that the Taser was emitting a blue light, not an electrical charge. The disruptive man pleaded guilty to obstruction, Knetsch said.

Burnsville was the second police department nationwide -- after Aberdeen, S.D. -- to use the AXON body cameras, made by Taser International. It is still the only law enforcement agency in Minnesota that is using them.

Hennepin Technical College uses the devices and several other agencies statewide are testing them, according to Jeff Cramer of Taser. Nationwide, 40 to 50 agencies are using the cameras, he said.

Dakota County Chief Deputy Tim Leslie said members of the county's version of a SWAT team will begin using the AXON cameras soon. A make and model has been chosen but policies still need to be set about their use, Leslie said.

For patrol deputies, he said, the county is waiting to see whether the next generation of body cams is less expensive and easier to use. It's also waiting to see what Burnsville recommends, he said.

"I think this is the future of law enforcement and we want to be close to that edge," Leslie said.

The Ramsey County Sheriff's Office is in the process of reviewing all of its technology and may look at the body cams as part of that, along with other tools, said spokesman Randy Gustafson.

Neither the Minneapolis nor St. Paul police departments are looking into the AXON cameras, spokesmen said.

Minneapolis Sgt. Bill Palmer said they have seen a demonstration, and "While the technology appears to be quite useful, it's not a priority for us at this time." Palmer said about 70 percent of the city's squad cars have in-dash cameras and the department is in the process of converting from a VHS-based to a digital-based system.

The AXON body cams cost about $2,000 apiece, as opposed to $7,000 for the in-dash cameras. Hawkins said he hopes to outfit all 40 of his patrol officers with the body cams, but they're waiting for the next generation camera before making the investment.

Video from the body cams is unloaded and stored off-site at Evidence.com. That lets authorized users, such as officers or prosecutors, pull up a video on their laptop.

Knetsch said he's used the videos in about 30 court cases. It will take six months to a year to accumulate enough data to extrapolate cost savings, he said. But, he added, they have definitely helped him do his job.

"We're always looking at more tools on the tool belt, and this is a good tool," he said.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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  • Almost 18 months after about one-third of Burnsville's 75 sworn officers began wearing body cams, like above, Chief Bob Hawkins says they have been “extremely successful for us in a number of different ways.”

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