By MASAKI OVA | The Jamestown Sun
JAMESTOWN — The body cameras and in-vehicle cameras that the Jamestown Police Department will be using work together and have the ability to automatically activate through certain triggers or actions, according to Scott Edinger, chief of police.
The Jamestown Police Department has a five-year contract with Utility for its BodyWorn equipment in the amount of $205,000. The contract includes body cameras for all uniformed patrol staff, in-vehicle cameras for all marked vehicles and one in-car license plate reader and includescomplete equipment replacement every 37 months, equipment damage replacement and backend/evidence software, Edinger said. The detectives and Edinger, who aren’t always on patrol, did not get body cameras because of the additional cost.
The Jamestown Police Department tried to implement body cameras several years ago, but the funding had to be diverted elsewhere, which turns out to be a good thing, Edinger said.
“The technology has come so far compared to what we would have gotten back then,” he said. “There is very little need for worrying about activation as long as the technology works because there are so many triggers that cause the camera to automatically activate. That wasn’t available back then.”
The body camera is a Motorola cellphone that clips onto an officer’s vest. Edinger said the system the department has makes it almost impossible to knock the camera off the officer’s vest.
He said some older camera systems were easy to deactivate without the officer’s knowledge because of a button on the front or top that accidentally gets pushed while getting a piece of equipment from the vest or even from adjusting the vest.
“This camera system will vibrate a few seconds so you know,” Edinger said. “It also uses voice commands to communicate with you and tell you what it’s doing.”
Other advantages of cameras
The cameras can be automatically activated when an officer activates the light bar, if an officer gets into an accident with a vehicle or drawing a gun among other actions. He said the body camera will not activate if an officer draws a taser because it is not made of metal.
“The system knows that you drew your gun and assumes that … you are in some type of tactical situation and it needs to be quiet, and then it won’t communicate with you through voice,” he said.
Edinger said the department is working with the Stutsman County Communications Center and information technology department on changes to the computer-aided dispatch system which will take some time to complete.
“If we are sent to a certain type of a call, the camera hopefully will eventually activate when we get a preset distance from that call depending on what kind of call it is,” he said. “So, let’s say we are going to an active shooter call, we might want that to activate immediately or if we are going to a domestic, maybe we want it to activate 300 feet from the address where the call is at.”
Edinger said some calls for service are very stressful for officers and it will be helpful if the cameras activate automatically. When officers respond to a call, they are thinking about elements of a crime, their safety, preserving evidence and the safety of victims, suspects and other people passing by, he said.
“It can be overwhelming so it’s easy to forget pushing the button (to activate the body camera),” he said.
The body cameras also can help mark a GPS location with the push of a button on a wristwatch. For example, if someone throws a weapon during a foot pursuit, an officer can push a button on a wristwatch and make the GPS location where the weapon was thrown.
“It might even catch them throwing the gun on the video so then it’s a date and a time stamp on the video and it marks the location, so we can go back and search that area and find that gun easier,” Edinger said.
The camera system also allows supervisors to log in and livestream the video of a call for service in certain circumstances, he said.
Cameras working together
The body cameras integrate with the in-vehicle cameras, which allow for a split-screen viewing with everything happening on both screens at the exact same time. With the older systems, he said a microphone pack would have to be paired with the in-vehicle camera.
“You (would) have a microphone on the officer but the officer is completely separate from the video,” he said. “Sometimes you run out of range and you would never guarantee that you were going to be on camera all the time. Not everything is going to happen right in front of a car. So now, the cameras integrate together. The body cam is the mic pack that ties to the video in the car.”
Edinger said a camera is in place to see what happens in the backseat of their vehicles. The camera will record when an individual tries to damage the vehicle, escape or even try to hide drugs.
The cameras also allow for synchronized video and audio when multiple officers respond to the same call for service. The video then gets uploaded into the same call for service and case number.
Disadvantages of body cameras
The biggest disadvantage of the body cameras is when the technology doesn’t work or if an officer forgets to activate it because of a stressful situation, Edinger said. Other disadvantages include the expense of the equipment.
“This was an expense that we didn’t have to pay before but it’s expected of law enforcement now,” he said.
He said another expense could include storage for the videos and handling open records requests because of the time it can take to do redactions from a video.
“Sometimes that turns into overtime because that takes hours to do sometimes and if it’s multiple videos, if it’s a big incident, if somebody asks for the body cam from a hoax school shooting or a real school shooting, you could be talking about hundreds and hundreds of hours of video,” he said.
Stutsman County State’s Attorney Fritz Fremgen said his office will get more open records requests as more video is collected.
“We are obligated to scrutinize the videos for information exempt from the open records general rule that the information is to be disclosed,” Fremgen said in an email to The Jamestown Sun. “That takes time.”
Because of the standards for document retention, having large digital media files like video will create a storage issue. He said files have to be stored for 30 years for felonies, for example.
“We don’t have the server space to store all these recordings,” Fremgen said. “So, a few years after we close a case, we can scan the paper part of a file and send the paper to secure disposal. But we have to put digital files on DVD or Blu-ray and hold onto the disks.”
Video use in cases
Edinger said the body cameras might help prioritize certain criminal cases based on the available evidence. He said the body cameras can help determine if an officer made a mistake or not because accusations are constantly being made against the department.
The cameras will also help officers document crimes or traffic violations. For example, officers are required to take photos of vehicles that are being issued a parking citation.
“It’s not available now but it will be in the next few months,” he said. “You literally take the camera out of your vest and while the video is rolling you can snap photos, so you get still shots while you are videotaping and you can video and photograph evidence, crime scenes, all kinds of things like that.”
Fremgen said video occasionally contains case-winning material.
“Usually video is a mixed bag most of which isn’t dispositive,” he said.
Fremgen said using body cameras, in-vehicle cameras or surveillance video takes time to download, store, watch, disclose to the defense and edit for trial. He said prosecutors get so much video that they cannot watch it all.
He said his default is to hold off on watching video unless it is a necessary part of the case such as making a decision on formal charges, making a disclosure, preparing an offer for sentencing or going to trial. In some cases, the prosecutors need to watch a video in real time to find an incriminating statement, for example.
Fremgen said he can read a transcript of an interview more quickly than watching it on video in real time. For example, in a trial involving a recorded statement from the defendant, Fremgen is generally prevented from offering evidence of prior bad acts and convictions.
“So, the recording needs to be scrutinized for mention of those, e.g., ‘This is your third DUI, so it’s an A misdemeanor,’ and then get those edited out of the copy that goes to the jury,” he said. “The transcript helps me locate and edit out inadmissible material in the video.”
But transcribing interviews takes time. The Stutsman County State’s Attorney’s Office budgets $3,500 a year for transcripts. Fremgen said his office spent $3,800 for transcripts in 2022 and the cost to request a transcript is $1.25 per minute.
Videos can also be used by the suspect or defendant to supply his or her side of the story, he said.
“The prosecutor who wants to play the interview on a body cam is generally stuck playing not only the defendant’s admissions but also the defendant’s explanation,” he said. “Once the defendant has their side of the story in evidence, they may not take the stand for cross examination.”