Cold and Cost Deter N.D. Town from Deploying Body Cameras

The police department in Dickinson, N.D., has considered body cameras, but cost and the reliability concerns have deterred them. Rather, the police chief says, a training simulator addresses concerns of officer behavior.

by James Miller, Dickinson Press / February 27, 2019

(TNS) — Technological innovation offers law enforcement many useful methods for combating criminal activity, from GPS and advanced communications systems to body armor and less-lethal projectiles. Each new leap in technology has, in one way or another, improved the safety of both police and the public.

"I started in law enforcement in the mid-'90s, in that time things have certainly changed," said Dustin D. Dassinger, chief of police in Dickinson, N.D. "Our records management systems has come a long way since then and can provide information directly out into the field that our officers can receive now. In-car video cameras kind of caught on in the late '90s, and right now every car we have out on the street is equipped with in-car video cameras that captures not only video but audio."

While keeping up with technology has been a constant at the Dickinson Police Department, when it's a "he said, she said" moment, one piece of technology has been at the forefront of modern policing — body cameras.

Officer body worn cameras can often end a dispute about what actually was said, done, etc. As such, they have been touted for their ability to provide prosecutorial evidence as well as saving many a career across the country. On the opposing side, they can be a detriment to a department financially as many smaller departments see the expenditure as cost prohibitive.

Which begs the question — do the Dickinson police have any plans to implement body worn cameras?

"We have talked for quite a while and have taken a look at body cameras," he said. "We are still in the midstream of doing research on it. There are pros and cons about them."

According to Dassinger, the department is in the process of completing their five-year strategic plan to determine purchases and operations.

"The methods of recruitment and hiring officers for the Dickinson Police Department are a crucial step in creating an appropriate culture and shaping the behaviors of our officers," Dassinger said. "Across the nation, body cameras gained notoriety because they are intended to fix transparency issues especially related to use of force incidents. The Dickinson Police Department will continue to research implementation of body cameras for our department, but in the near future, our focus will continue to be on training and hiring good officers."

Not alone in their lack of police worn cameras, a sample of police departments surveyed in a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice found approximately 75 percent of departments reported that they did not use body-worn cameras.

Addressing the positives of bringing body cameras into the department, Dassinger said the safety of the public and the police are major factors.

"We know that people act differently when they are being filmed, and that police body cameras encourage good behavior by both police and citizens which can lead to decrease in violence," he said. "Another pro is that they improve police accountability and protect officers from false accusations of misconduct. That's huge for us. It might discourage false complaints while providing visual and audio evidence that can independently verify accusations by the public and reaffirm statements made by our officers."

Dassinger said that the body cameras would also provide a great learning tool to the department.

"Reviewing steps taken on certain situations or calls can be used not only for retraining purposes but for training new recruits," he said.

Addressing some of the cons for implementing body cameras department wide, Dassinger said it centered on budgetary concerns and reliability.

"Sometimes people rush out and buy the newest and greatest thing and find out that it doesn't work very well in North Dakota because of the climate, or it's just not reliable," he said. "Cost is a big issue, not only because you have the initial purchase of the cameras itself but you have the software costs with storage."

According to Dassinger, these issues must be addressed before stepping into a new program like body-worn cameras.

"The other issue is you have to have strong policy. You have to determine if the officers are going to wear their cameras all the time while they're on duty, what are you going to do when you encounter a juvenile, what are you going to do when you enter somebody's private residence," he said. "Those are all things that have to be ironed out in a strong policy before you even consider implementing something like that."

In addition to the policy, cost and reliability issues, Dassinger said that it would require potentially looking into the hiring of new staff.

"Every minute of data that you record, that includes audio and video, are going to be subject to open records requests. You could easily tie up one staff member on evidentiary issues related to body cameras," he said. "Those are some of the concerns and hurdles that we have to consider."

Whether the department moved forward on the body cameras project or not, Dassinger felt that many of the issues prompting other departments to do so were not issues that are currently facing the Dickinson Police Department.

"My opinion is that body cameras might prevent the odd swear word or inappropriate comment when an officer is relaxed but cognizant of the device attached to their ballistic vest, but in a heated situation where force becomes necessary, an officer is going to revert to their training and instinct regardless if a camera is rolling or not," Dassinger said. "When a police officer uses force, the situation is often tense, adrenaline is running high and instinctive responses based on training kicks in."

According to Dassinger, the Dickinson Police Department emphasizes training especially in communication and de-escalation in all of its use-of-force training.

"The Dickinson Police Department has a major tool in our tool box for training in use-of-force situations, specifically our VirTra Training Simulator," he said. "Scenarios associated with the VirTra system are endless and we are able to create our own circumstances and environment using footage drawn from our own community."

That training, Dassinger said, was critical to ensuring that officers act in a proportionate, legal and professional manner.

"As a police chief I want to make sure I hire the best officers possible to serve our community. I don't hire just to fill a vacancy," he said. "I desire officers who have strong ethical values, the ability to process information quickly, the ability to make decisions under pressure and who can integrate into good community members."

©2019 the Dickinson Press (Dickinson, N.D.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.