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Kodiak, Alaska, Police Discontinue Use of Body Cams Citing Technical Difficulties, Privacy Concerns

The cameras were slow to begin recording from sleep mode; they were easily knocked off officers' uniforms; and a button that turns off sound could be inadvertently pressed.

by Jerzy Shedlock, Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage / September 2, 2016

(TNS) -- The Kodiak Police Department's officers no longer use body cameras, a change that came less than a year after they started testing the technology, sought after by agencies nationwide and the basis of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Kodiak police chief Rhonda Wallace told the local City Council in mid-August she decided to discontinue the use of body cameras because of technical difficulties and privacy concerns.

The change troubles private attorney Josh Fitzgerald, who is representing the family of an autistic man suing the city over a physical encounter with police. That encounter was caught on a body camera, and KPD turned over the footage only after a Kodiak Superior Court judge ordered its release in December.

Addressing Council members on Aug. 11, Wallace said when the body camera program started in February 2015 the change "appeared beneficial to the community." Officers enjoyed wearing the cameras because they provided accountability. She said she liked having an extra tool to evaluate her employees' performance.

But unanticipated problems arose, Wallace said. The cameras were slow to begin recording from sleep mode; they were easily knocked off officers' uniforms; and a button that turns off sound could be inadvertently pressed, she said.

Wallace also said the cameras posed a risk to individual privacy rights.

"Police often encounter people on their worst days. These individuals could be drunk or high on drugs or otherwise behaving in a manner that's not normal for them. People also contact police to discuss extremely private matters that would devastate them if another person could obtain a high definition video of their statement," she said.

A 2014 Police Executive Research Forum study included responses from departments around the country citing all of Wallace's concerns and others, including determining when to record and whether to obtain consent.

Civil rights advocates are also questioning body camera policies. A scorecard issued by the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights evaluating the policies of 50 police departments in major cities found the rules governing their use vary widely.

Wallace did not say when the local police department stopped using the cameras. City Manager Aimee Kniaziowski said it was late December, several months after the incident with Nick Pletnikoff.

Wallace asserts officers responded to a vehicle break-in and acted properly during Pletnikoff's arrest. The family argues Pletnikoff was checking the mailbox and officers became unnecessarily rough.

Kniaziowski said Wednesday she supported the chief's decision. She said she believes the police department will use cameras again in the future.

"Once a person's right to privacy has been addressed," she said, "we'll work toward getting the program back up and using them again."

Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson said body camera issues have been discussed among members of the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police. Johnson said KPD is the only police department he is aware of that stopped using the cameras. His own department has not rolled out a camera program.

"My take is every community in Alaska is unique, so their reasons for stopping are based on individual needs," he said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all solution."

Meanwhile, the two largest law enforcement agencies in the state continue to police without cameras.

Anchorage Police Department spokesperson Jennifer Castro said if police there were to start using the devices, it's still a ways off. APD officers use vehicle cameras with sound and carry audio recorders, she said.

The Department of Public Safety has yet to issue body cameras to the Alaska State Troopers, said spokesperson Megan Peters.

Fitzgerald, the attorney representing the Pletnikoff family, is unconvinced by the police chief's recent presentation. He said her omission of when exactly she shuttered the camera program was intentional.

"It looks better if it didn't happen right on the heels of the brutality against Nick Pletnikoff," he said, adding the chief's continued statements that the interaction was proper is troubling.

The chief reiterated the interaction was proper in a public release highlighting the success of Kodiak CARE, a program she started aimed at increasing communication between the police department and social service agencies that work with the developmentally disabled, and training for officers on how to interact with those individuals.

The program also includes an option for families with developmentally disabled members to provide information for a database — such as "potential triggers" and caregiver contact information — which police could use to inform their contacts with those family members. ID cards are also available for those enrolled in the program.

Fitzgerald criticized the police department's new practices as a double standard.

"The remedy so far has been saying there's a way for the vulnerable people to act, here's a way for the disabled to act, but as to police conduct we're just going to remove the cameras," Fitzgerald said.

Kniaziowski characterized the program as mainly an opportunity to connect with stakeholders in the community. She said she does not have concerns about the privacy of the database or potential misuse of the collected information.

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©2016 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

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