The Washington County Sheriff’s Office, recognizing that various forms of multimedia recordings already are in wide use among law enforcement officers and citizens alike, will begin rolling out body cameras this month.
Cameras will be assigned to all licensed peace officers in the Sheriff’s Office, including plainclothes investigators and deputies who provide security for the district court in Stillwater.
There has been no discernible controversy among county residents about the body cameras, which deputies see as the latest generation of technology, Cmdr. Andrew Ellickson said.
“They knew it was coming,” said Ellickson, who led a nine-officer study group.
Sheriff Bill Hutton said his agency will be the first in Minnesota to use Visual Lab software, which provides “all in one device” capabilities for audio and video recordings, still photography, phone calls, GPS tracking and other uses.
The software, along with the devices that officers will wear, will cost the county an estimated $48,000 the first year and about $62,000 each subsequent year. The Sheriff’s Office no longer will pay stipends to deputies for using their personal phones on the job.
“The big hang-up on body cameras is whether or not, if a critical incident occurs, an officer or deputy can review footage before filing that report,” Hutton said.
In Washington County, they can. The Sheriff’s Office policy conforms with state law, Hutton said, giving deputies that choice.
Cpl. Mark Caroon, a union leader in the department, said deputies already know they could be videotaped by anyone. He said they welcome body cameras to confirm public interactions.
“There wasn’t any pushback here,” said Caroon, currently assigned to court security. “Officers want to do the right thing. You’ll have proof of it.”
Body cameras are under discussion in St. Paul and Woodbury and many other agencies in the wake of the new state law clarifying public access to body-cam data.
Recordings are confidential until active criminal investigations conclude, at which point any video showing use of force by a police officer that results in substantial bodily harm becomes public.
Hutton oversees the largest law enforcement agency in Washington County. His deputies patrol townships and several cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Office for services, such as Hugo, Mahtomedi and Lake Elmo.
Ellickson said deputies will activate their body cameras two to three hours per shift for traffic stops and “critical incidents” that involve confrontations.
Supervising officers or a dispatcher can activate cameras in the event a deputy is unable to do so, he said.
Ellickson oversees court security, a job he got after Cmdr. Jerry Cusick retired last summer. Deputies working in the courts as well as patrol deputies will wear body cameras, Ellickson said.
“If the majority of your shift involves dealing with the public, you’re going to be wearing it,” he said. “In a couple of years, everyone is going to have it.”
Caroon, a member of the Law Enforcement Labor Services union, said body cameras will help officers and the public with accountability, eliminating speculation over what happened at a traffic stop or crime scene.
“Each person sees things differently,” he said.
Hutton said of the technology: “Lots of recording going on, and that only continues to be more prevalent.”