Spring Lake Park Police will be replacing dashboard-mounted cameras in squad cars with officer-worn cameras.

The small north metro department is believed to be the first in the Twin Cities to issue body cameras to all of its officers — 11 — who will record interactions with the public.

Spring Lake Park joins Burnsville as early adopters. The Burnsville department has issued body cameras to about half of its 75 officers.

Nearby Columbia Heights is also testing out body cameras and plans to issue one to each of its 27 officers starting in 2015.

While smaller suburban police forces are warming to their use, larger departments including Minneapolis have resisted public calls to use body-mounted cameras, with department brass saying the devices need more study. St. Paul Police also do not use officer-worn cameras.

Spring Lake Police Chief Doug Ebeltoft told his City Council that outfitting his department with body cameras would be affordable and would protect the city and individual officers from liability.

Body cameras will record more than a dashboard camera and will take the “we-said, they-said” out of disputes.

“Due to phenomenal advances in technology, officer-worn video systems are now cost-effective and small enough and durable enough to withstand the rigors of police work,” Ebeltoft told the council, which approved the purchase of body cameras in June with little discussion.

Purchasing the cameras will cost $12,000, about one-third the $36,000 the city had budgeted to replace the dashboard cameras.

Ebeltoft said he has ordered the cameras and will deploy them as soon as possible.

“The officers are very receptive to the camera systems,” he said. “We have had camera systems in our patrol vehicles for years and the officers realize the benefits of having them.”

Video will be saved until a case has concluded and then for about 90 days afterward in case of appeals, he said.

Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau said the cost to the department will be around $30,000 for three years, including software, storage and technical support. Columbia Heights, too, will get rid of the dash camera.

Burnsville’s experience

Burnsville police started using body cameras in 2010. Officers now wear them mounted to the front of their uniforms. The camera looks like a pager and gives a much fuller, more accurate account of an officer’s encounter with a person than a dash cam, law enforcement officials say.

“Ninety-four percent of what happens in a police officer’s day is not directly in front of the squad car,” said Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke.

Gieseke said the cameras have been successful in his city. Department officials, the city attorney and county attorney all can pull up footage on a secured server almost instantly.

“They’ve been very effective in helping prepare cases for court,” Gieseke said.

Footage also helps investigate complaints against officers.

“If we get a complaint and there is video, we certainly look at it. It has been helpful in a number of cases. In some instances, we shared that video with the person making the complaint,” Gieseke said.

Dakota County Attorney Chief Deputy Phil Prokopowicz said the Burnsville footage “has been effective testimony” at trial, especially in domestic assault cases, where victims may feel pressured to recant, or officers’ decisions can be second-guessed by defense attorneys after the fact.

“It takes the jury or the judge … right to the scene. It sees what the officer sees, including all the emotions, the real-life effect of what is happening out there,” Prokopowicz said. “It’s a very powerful video.”

In addition to the sounds that officers hear as they approach a house, the camera also provides footage and audio of victims, often seconds or minutes after a crime.

“You get their firsthand account and the trembling in their voice,” Prokopowicz said.

He recalls a case in which officers responding to a domestic call encountered a man with a knife in an apartment hallway. Officers could be heard trying to talk the man down.

When force is required, the video allows judges and juries a better understanding of how the situation escalated.

“At first glance, that force may seem over the top or abusive. Once they see the entire video, they understand why the officer reacted that way,” Prokopowicz said.

“This is what the officers are experiencing out there. It helps explain the officers conduct.”

In a world with security cameras on every corner and bystanders, witnesses and suspects using smartphones to record police encounters, it only makes sense to outfit officers with the same tools, Gieseke said.

“The reality is, we are being recorded by someone or something a majority of the day,” he said. “We should certainly give our officers the tools everyone else has. Somewhere down the road, people are not going to want to do their job without a camera.”

Burnsville police’s body cameras haven’t faced the most extreme test, a police-involved shooting.

Gieseke said he understands larger departments’ decision to move cautiously. Outfitting hundreds of officers in one department takes time, technology and management.

“When you have a department that size, you want to be slow and strategic and deliberate,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said that body cameras can increase officer accountability but that departments need consistent policies in place about when they are turned on and when officers shut them off.

“Body cameras can be a good thing with the right policies in place,” said ACLU Legal Director Teresa Nelson.

Departments also need to consider privacy concerns of individuals and victims recorded by these devices, she said.

“Unlike the squad cameras, the body cameras have much more potential to invade privacy,” Nelson said. “An officer going into a person’s home, now that is recorded.”