(by Heron Marquez Estrada, StarTribune.com) – Like any law enforcement agency would, the Burnsville [Minnesota] Police Department immediately launched an investigation when a suspect recently accused an officer of excessive force for handcuffing him too tightly upon arrest.
While at other departments that kind of internal affairs investigation would take days or weeks, in Burnsville the matter was settled in about 10 minutes.
The arresting officer was one of Burnsville’s so-called “Robo Cops,” a group of about 20 officers who since July have been using portable video recording devices attached to their headgear to record just about every traffic stop, vehicle search, domestic dispute and arrest.
Burnsville is the first department in the state to use the technology and one of a handful around the country. Eventually, all of Burnsville’s street officers, about 40 of the 75 sworn officers, will be equipped this way, police officials said.
The portable recorders, made by Taser International, have proved so effective that Burnsville has done away with the in-dash video cameras that used to be standard on police vehicles.
“This is the future,” said Tom Hansen, Burnsville’s assistant city administrator. “Every once in a while something comes along that is a game changer, and this is. These are going to be standard equipment for everyone in a few years.”
In the handcuffing case, Chief Bob Hawkins looked at his officer’s video of the arrest and noted that the officer placed a finger inside the cuffs to verify that they were not too tight before putting him in the squad car.
“In the past this type of thing used to be a ‘he said-she said’ situation that could have dragged on,” Hansen said. “If you didn’t have that [recording], that could have gone a completely different way.”
The cameras could pay for themselves before long: City officials, who spent about $40,000 to purchase the equipment, expect them to save the city thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in coming years.
The dash cameras, for example, cost $6,000 each, while the head cams are less than $2,000 apiece. The cameras will cut down on officers working overtime to testify in court because the video will speak for them in many cases. And there will be a lot fewer personnel hours spent investigating complaints from the public against officers.
Wave of the future
Other police departments agree that the body cameras, as they are sometimes called, are probably here to stay.
“I could see that happening some day,” said Cmdr. Joe Neuberger of the St. Paul Police Department, which looked at the same equipment as Burnsville.
Neuberger said that when Taser approached the department, St. Paul [Minnesota] was in the middle of a $1 million grant-funded project to install in-dash video cameras in its squad cars.
He said St. Paul police talked about possibly doing both car and body video, but decided that the department was so far along in the dash cam project that it would not be practical to try to do both.
“But I think it’s got great potential,” Neuberger said of the body cameras. “This is the next step in video technology. I’m sure at some point we will be going to them.”
“I’m excited about it,” said Matt Bostrom, the newly elected Ramsey County sheriff. “I think it’s a tremendous innovation. I’m eager to look at it in the field. We’re going to be contacting Burnsville and find out about their success.”
Bostrom, a commander with the St. Paul Police Department, said he liked what the body cams would be able to do, such as provide video records for the department for internal and external cases.
Safeguards built in
While the devices could help police internally, the crime-fighting and investigative capabilities of the recorders are what might soon make them standard equipment.
Earlier this year, for example, a suspect accused police of an illegal search of his car after a traffic stop. But a video from one of the Robo Cops at the scene clearly showed what was described as drug paraphernalia in plain sight.
In another case, officers responding to an assault at a gas station were not only able to write up the statements of the victims and the suspect they arrested, but they also got video of the participants within seconds after the attack, according to Capt. Eric Gieseke.
“It’s helped me in court,” said Officer Chris Biagini, one of the officers who responded to the July 28 attack at the gas station. “It’s not like any other record. You’re able to [document] the emotions of the victims as things are happening.”
Biagini, a four-year veteran of the department, said it took him and other officers awhile to become comfortable with the AXON system, which includes the camera and a portable computer where the recordings are stored. The hard drive is clipped to the officer’s utility belt or can be placed in a coat or pants pocket.
“It’s not bad,” Biagini said of the video recorder. “It takes me an extra five minutes to get dressed and ready for my shift, but I like wearing it. I almost feel naked without it now.”
Biagini, for example, said he has made several traffic stops over the past few months in which drivers argued that they either hadn’t run a red light or had in fact signaled their turn.
Once he shows them the video, he said, they generally calm down. “It’s helped me out a lot,” Biagini said.
Once a video is recorded, it is stored and cannot be edited by officers. After the shift, the videos are uploaded directly to an off-site server where they are held as evidence for as long as the case requires.
The storage is provided by a company called Evidence.com, which handles data storage for a number of large companies.
Although Burnsville police are confident that the information is secure, Neuberger in St. Paul said one of the reasons his department didn’t push harder for the body cams is that the videos are stored off-site. That could raise chain-of-custody questions in some cases.
“The body-worn [equipment] is brand-new stuff,” Neuberger said. “The technology is outpacing the legal issues.”
Gieseke said that he is confident in the system and that the videos are holding up to legal scrutiny.
“It preserves the truth. It shows what happened,” Gieseke said. “It’s no different than any other police record.”
Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Visit the website at StarTribune.com.
1. What is the Burnsville, Minnesota police department the first department in the state to do?
2. How effective is the Burnsville PD finding the body cams?
3. How cost effective are the new body cams?
4. In addition to cost, how do the body cams help save officers time?
5. Re-read para. 11-15 and 26-31. What do you think of St. Paul’s decision on dash cams vs. body cams?
6. Watch the video under “Resources” below the questions. Do you support the idea of police departments having their officers use body cams? Explain your answer.
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