Hastings Police Chief Bryan Schafer hasn’t heard from any residents of his river city calling for more accountability from his officers.
But he’s certainly aware of the nationwide outcry following the events in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and elsewhere. And he’d rather be proactive rather than having to simply react if or when something happens in his neck of the woods.
“What happened in Ferguson could happen anywhere,” Schafer said. “We never know what we’re going to face, and it doesn’t matter what size community you’re in.”
Come April, the Hastings Police Department will join a handful of others across the state using body cameras. The department plans to buy eight cameras and probably shift them around between the 29 sworn officers.
Instead of using a cloud-based storage system, Hastings will store the data locally.
“If you dump the stuff that is of no value and you closely monitor the cases you really need to keep data on, it’s not that big a deal,” he said.
The total cost of the software, training and cameras will be just under $10,000, Schafer said.
The Burnsville Police Department has used body cameras since 2010, said Chief Eric Gieseke, who spoke in favor of the body camera proposal to the Hastings City Council.
The first model was head-mounted, which provided good line-of-sight video for incidents such as traffic violations. But it posed a problem for the 20 percent of officers who were female and often had longer hair. That camera connected via cable to a computer in the squad car.
The next was body-mounted with a computer attached, which was heavy and cumbersome.
Burnsville is now on its fourth model, a body-mount with no cables, for its 55 on-the-street officers. They’ve gotten rid of in-squad cameras and Taser cameras, the chief said.
The cameras have provided valuable evidence, Gieseke said. An officer using a body camera responded to a report of shots fired in January 2012 that ended up being a homicide. The camera captured an incriminating statement from the suspect as he left and recorded the weapon being found on the floor.
“There was no question, did [the suspect] really say what you said he said, did we move the evidence?” Gieseke remembered.
In another case, a body camera recorded an officer writing a citation for a traffic violation. A few days later, the vehicle’s owner complained that the officer had illegally searched his car and trunk. The video showed that hadn’t happened.
Questions about privacy
Schafer said Hastings has used squad car videos for some time, but they have a limited field of vision — most of an officer’s work doesn’t take place directly in front of the car.
The chief said citizens routinely take video of officers with cellphones or small cameras. The body cameras “are just getting us caught up and leveling the playing field,” he said.
Jurors, too, want to see video of a crime not just hear about it from an officer, he said.
“That’s why I say this is not anything new and novel,” Schafer said. “We’ve been using the technology for a long time. The conversation is about video storage, it’s definitely a huge increase in data.”
He’s aware, too, of data privacy concerns, and said officers won’t go into someone’s house and use the cameras.
“I think from the police side, we fully support data privacy,” Schafer said. “We see some crazy stuff.”
Schafer also said he hopes the body-camera video can someday take the place of an entire police report. If an officer needs to interview a victim or a suspect, the camera can be turned on to record the entire interview and tagged to a particular case.
State Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, threw a bit of a wrench into Hastings’ plans and Burnsville’s procedures when he introduced a bill that would place a one-year moratorium on the use of body cameras.
Petersen said the bill was in response to technology outpacing lawmakers’ ability to regulate how it is used and who can access the footage.
“The Legislature has not had the time to come up with a policy that balances privacy, the public right to public information, and concerns about the length and amount of data retention,” he said.
The bill has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has taken no action on it, and Petersen himself said last week that he doesn’t expect the bill to go anywhere this session.
If it did, Hastings’ plans would be put on hold. Burnsville’s chief isn’t sure what would happen there. If the body cameras were taken away from officers, there would be no video source, since there are no longer any squad car cameras in use.
“In my opinion, it [the bill] goes in the wrong direction,” Gieseke said. “The other thing to keep in mind: People are literally screaming for police accountability. There’s a very loud portion of our society that wants to make sure we’re equipped with them.”