Grand County Sheriff’s Office initiates body cam program for deputies
January 15, 2017
Over the last several years a number of high profile use of force incidents involving police and citizens and several ambush killings of officers have, in some places in the US, strained relationships between law enforcement and the communities they protect.
Thankfully Grand County has avoided most of this tumult. But in the wake of the ongoing tensions many departments throughout the nation are initiating body camera programs for their officers. Since late Nov. the Grand County Sheriff's Office (GCSO) has been operating a pilot body cam program. Officials hope to bring the program fully live, with all on-duty deputies equipped with the cameras, by mid-Feb.
The GCSO is still working out the specific policy details that will govern the department's program. Lieutenant Dan Mayer, Public Information Officer for the GCSO, explained deputies will not be required to keep the cameras on at all times throughout their shift.
"They have to turn it off when going to the bathroom," Mayer said with a chuckle. "We left some things discretionary for the deputies," such as when they stop for meals or go into convenience stores for a snack. "It is not an absolute that everything will be on video."
Mayer said the department would begin training for all deputies on January 25. "Then there will be a two-week period to identify issues."
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According to Mayer all footage uploaded by deputies will be retained within the cloud for at least 30-days. Additionally footage will be stored on hard drives at the Sheriff's office in Hot Sulphur Springs. Pertinent footage of incidents and interactions with citizens will be retained long-term. "Anything that is evidentiary gets sent to the DA's [District Attorney's] Office," Mayer said.
He added the GCSO would not edit or redact footage it sends to the DA's Office. "They will decide what portion of the video they want to show in court," he said. "When we upload a video we can't edit it. Our deputies don't have the option to copy it. They can't go in and delete them. They can review their own videos but they cannot alter them. The most I can do is restrict it. But I can't drop it off the cloud. If there is a video going to the media we can cut out a portion for release."
Mayer said the GCSO is still working out a specific policy for citizen's accessing the footage. "We don't know how often there will be requests for it," Mayer said. "We have been researching CORA stuff about this. We are trying to come up with a reasonable policy."
According to Mayer until a formal policy has been written down the release of any footage will be at the discretion of Sheriff Brett Schroetlin. "We are probably going to treat it similar to photographs where we can charge for duplication. It depends on if it relates to an active investigation."
Mayer said the GCSO is still determining what timing system they will use for uploading videos to their database and whether or not the videos will be uploaded at the end of each deputy's shift, at the end of the workweek, or under some other paradigm. Whatever specific policy takes shape Mayer said the footage would, when possible, be uploaded during off hours so deputies are not without the cameras while on duty.
Additionally Mayer pointed out each deputy will be assigned a specific body cam for his use only. "The accountability is much better that way."
So far four deputies from the GCSO have been working with the body cams. Those deputies will serve as trainers for the other deputies as the program expands. "They have been identifying issues in terms of categorizing and labeling these videos," Mayer said.
The deputies are also determining the best location on their bodies to secure the cameras to provide quality footage. Center-chest would appear to be one of the best locations for placing a body cam but as Mayer pointed out if there is a shooting situation the camera is liable to catch only the deputies hands and gun, and not what he is pointing at.
Mayer also highlighted that the cameras are good at catching some footage and fairly inadequate with others. "If I walk up and I am talking with you these are great. If we start wrestling they are terrible."
The cameras the GCSO purchased are Axon models, produced by the famed police equipment company Taser. Each camera can retain up to 21-hours of footage before the footage needs to be uploaded.
Additionally each camera unit has a 30-second recording standby mode. In essence when deputies turn on the cameras they are filming but not "recording". To initiate the recording process the deputy must push a button in the center of the device. However, once a deputy pushes the button the camera automatically retains the 30-seconds of footage that preceded pushing the button. The measure is meant as a safeguard to ensure the moments leading up to a confrontation, before a deputy may have initiated a recording, are retained for review.
Body cam programs aim to do two things primarily: instill additional trust in the community through the transparency that can be created through footage, and to protect officers from scurrilous accusations of malfeasance or impropriety. The footage also serves as visual evidence and can be used in the prosecution of cases when necessary.
"I look at these things and think about all the years I have done this job," said Lt. Mayer. "I can't think of a time where this would have hurt me. I can only come up with instances when it will protect the officers and provide good evidence in court."