Articles

Duluth, Minn., PD Weighs Pros, Cons of Body Cams

The cameras have been lauded as tools that help keep both officers and the public accountable, but some public agencies are now struggling with concerns about high storage and maintenance costs, among other things.

by Tom Olsen, Duluth News Tribune / August 10, 2015

(TNS) --A year after the Duluth Police Department equipped its uniformed officers with body cameras, support for the technology appears nearly universal among officers, attorneys and community activists.

The cameras have been lauded as tools that help keep both officers and the public accountable. Video has been used to aid in criminal investigations and prosecutions, and it’s been used both to exonerate and discipline officers accused of misconduct, officials said.

But the measure hasn’t come without side effects for some public agencies, which now are struggling with concerns about high storage and maintenance costs, strains on personnel and uncertainty about privacy and public access to video.

“I think body cameras are here to stay,” Duluth police Lt. Laura Marquardt said. “I don’t think there’s any turning back now. … The public demands it and there’s great uses for it. The negative is that it’s just so costly.”

With about 120 cameras in use, Duluth’s officers have collected more than 100,000 videos during the past year, Marquardt said, noting that the technology to store and access the data doesn’t come cheap.

Meanwhile, prosecutors and defense attorneys are sometimes poring through hours of videos, all of which must be reviewed and shared in criminal cases, and staff members are struggling to keep up.

Still, despite those occasional headaches, the push for law enforcement agencies to adopt body cameras doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

“It really is the next evolution of the criminal justice system,” Northeastern Minnesota Chief Public Defender Dan Lew said.

“Overall, it’s been a good addition to the system. But we need to find some solutions to the considerable resources it takes.”

Creating accountability

Nowhere has the effectiveness of body cameras been more evident than in reviews of officer complaints, Marquardt said.

The number of citizen complaints filed in the past year hasn’t dropped, she said. But reviews that sometimes took weeks to investigate, involving interviews of multiple witnesses, can now often be resolved in less than an hour.

“The body cameras show everything,” said Marquardt, who oversees the program. “It’s a great tool for transparency.”

Police administrators do not randomly analyze video to check up on officers. But they will use it to review complaints.

Marquardt, who also handles many disciplinary complaints, said most reviews have found that officers acted appropriately. But body camera video has been used in a few cases to discipline or impose training for officers, she said.

Archie Davis, a member of the Duluth Citizen Review Board, has had the opportunity to review some video and said he is on board with the technology. The board was established in 2012 to review complaints against officers and serve as a liaison between the police department and the public.

At a time when police are under intense nationwide scrutiny, Davis said the cameras don’t necessarily provide a clear answer to the question of whether or not racial profiling is still occurring. But they’re useful tools for reviewing specific incidents, he said.

“You’re face-to-face, seeing and hearing everything that has taken place,” he said of the videos. “It’s holding people accountable for their actions, one way and the other.”

Changing police work

For officers on the streets, operating the cameras takes relatively little effort. Department policies advise officers when they should activate the cameras, but they’re generally used in most contact with citizens.

Marquardt said there was a learning curve for many officers, who had to get used to activating the devices, particularly in tense situations. She said reaction to the cameras initially was mixed but now estimates that about 95 percent of the force is supportive.

“In 21 years, I’ve never worked in a climate like this,” Marquardt said of the recent policing controversies. “I think the public feels (body cameras) are a good thing, and our officers agree.”

The department has been averaging nearly 10,000 body camera videos a month, she said. However, a majority of those videos are noncriminal in nature and are automatically deleted after 60 days.

About 25 percent of the data are criminal in nature and must be retained and made available to the judicial system. As of last week, the department’s storage system had more than 35,000 retained videos.

The cameras cost about $400 apiece from manufacturer TASER, Marquardt said. Paying for the video storage capacity — currently at a massive 5 terabytes — and the software licensing fees is a bigger challenge.

Marquardt said the department has three property and evidence technicians overwhelmed with work. She said they probably need two more positions just to handle the influx of video.

“The hidden cost is the manpower behind it,” she said.

Stresses on court system

The Police Department isn’t the only agency feeling the effects of body cameras.

At the 6th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office in Duluth, Lew said four legal assistants are overwhelmed trying to gather and prepare videos for attorneys and clients.

When the videos started rolling in last summer, the office’s databases came to a “screeching halt,” he said, necessitating investments in the office’s computer systems.

Technology issues aside, Lew said the videos have also created a lot of work for attorneys.

“We’re seeing five to seven videos per case, and they’re averaging about eight minutes,” he said. “All of that requires review.”

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said his prosecutors and support staff are experiencing similar strains on their time and resources.

While the cameras have perhaps allowed some cases to get resolved more quickly, Rubin noted that the videos still have to be reviewed by prosecutors before charging a case or bringing it to trial. Editing video for jury trials can bring further complications, he said.

Rubin said he wasn’t entirely convinced that body cameras are necessary, and he stressed that video cannot be a replacement for written reports, photographs and follow-up interviews that are integral in criminal investigations.

Rubin said the cameras haven’t proven to be a “great positive” in prosecutions so far, but he was willing to work with the technology.

“If it enhances the professionalism, and if it enhances the public’s confidence in law enforcement officers,” he said, “that’s a good thing.”

Debating public access

After a Minnesota legislative session that saw much chatter about body cameras, police departments utilizing the technology didn’t get any clear answers to their questions about privacy and public access to body camera video.

In Duluth, and in a handful of other Minnesota cities using the cameras, officials have sought clarification about what video — if any — should be public.

The Minnesota Senate this year passed a bill that would have classified most of the video collected by law enforcement officers as private. But the bill never made it to the House.

Police officials have sought to keep certain videos private, including those filmed in “private places” such as homes, schools or hospitals, and in the investigation of crimes involving domestic assault, sexual assault, mental health crises or juvenile crimes.

Under current law, much of the video collected through body cameras is public, except in some instances already included in the state’s Government Data Practices Act.

An effort by the city of Duluth to get a temporary classification of video from the state Department of Administration was rejected last year, with the agency saying the Legislature should consider the matter. The city’s request came after the News Tribune and other entities requested body camera video of an officer-involved shooting that occurred within a private residence.

The Twin Cities suburb of Maplewood is leading a similar effort to get legal classification from the state. Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell said his city was finalizing the request, which should be submitted to the state soon.

“For those of us using body cams, we’re collecting and amassing data,” Schnell said. “We want to be responsive to the requests we get.”

Rich Neumeister, a citizen advocate for government transparency in Minnesota, said he has concerns about the efforts to keep much of the video from the public. Neumeister has viewed videos from numerous agencies in the state.

“Video is becoming the documentation. The paper stuff is going away,” he said. “There’s no transparency if it’s all kept from the public.”

Schnell agreed that not all video should be kept private, and he acknowledged that it’s important for the public to be able to review incidents that involve the use of force. He said future legislation would need to be carefully crafted to allow for that transparency.

“I do recognize that use-of-force incidents are going to be of the greatest public interest, and for good reason,” he said. “The public wants to watch what the government is doing, and I think we can offer some specific language around that.”

Looking at the future

The Duluth Police Department was an early adopter of body cameras, testing the products as far back as early 2011 before fully implementing the program last summer.

The department’s implementation came well before a nationwide push for agencies to equip their officers with cameras, largely fueled by controversial policing incidents in cities including Ferguson, Mo. Earlier this year, President Obama pledged about $75 million to assist agencies in the effort.

As the largest police department in Minnesota to implement cameras fully, Marquardt said Duluth is seeing a steady flow of requests from other agencies seeking advice.

“Everybody and their brother wants it right now,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much time I was going to spend just taking calls from other agencies.”

In the Northland, the Superior Police Department has initiated a pilot program for body cameras, and Chisholm police have experimented with the devices. On a larger scale, both the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments are looking at the technology.

Marquardt said the growing demand has served to drive up prices for the technology. The city’s three-year contract with TASER, which has dominated the market, is up in April 2017, and she said city officials should be prepared for sticker shock when it comes to looking at a new deal.

“It’s going to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said. “And not the low hundreds.”

Marquardt said it will be an issue that the Duluth City Council and the next mayor will have to look at. But the public demand for the cameras, and their effectiveness, would make it hard to end the program, she said.

Other officials, fighting their own budgetary issues, concurred.

“I don’t think there’s a turning-back point now,” Lew said.

©2015 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.