Body cameras for police officers are coming

FARGO -- As police agencies around the country start equipping officers with body cameras, local law enforcement and city leaders say such devices will eventually be the norm in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but not until several concerns are resolved.

Reuters Brian Gurule, a Colorado Springs motor officer, poses with a Digital Ally First Vu HD body worn camera worn on his chest in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 21. The police department is doing a pilot project, testing several different body worn camera models for a month at a time as a it considers purchasing 450 of the units with an initial cost of more than $500,000.

FARGO -- As police agencies around the country start equipping officers with body cameras, local law enforcement and city leaders say such devices will eventually be the norm in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but not until several concerns are resolved.

"It's not as simple as just buying a piece of technology and sticking it on somebody," said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. "There's a lot of consequences that will come if you're too rash in deploying this."

The recent string of police killings of unarmed men, like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, has increased interest in body cameras, which record patrol officers' interactions with the public, as a way to boost police transparency and accountability. The benefits of cameras are clear to police chiefs here, but they say technical challenges, high costs and privacy issues may hold them back for years.

Although, that doesn't mean some departments aren't already shopping around for the best body camera.

Last fall, Ebinger and interim Fargo Police Chief David Todd perused several models on display at a law enforcement conference in Orlando, Fla. Todd said the cameras ranged in price from $800 to $1,100 each.


"There's just a ton of new products now out there," he said. "And some of these companies, they're here one year and gone the next year."

Until Todd's comfortable a certain model will work for his department, he said, he's not ready to ask for the roughly $200,000 it would cost to buy cameras and the vast amount of data storage needed to hold hours upon hours of footage.

"I don't want to be the first one to jump in the pool and end up with a deficient product," he said.

The Cass County Sheriff's Department is also researching body cameras, but it's taken the step of budgeting for five cameras, which will be used on patrol later this year, Sheriff Paul Laney said.

To outfit more deputies, the sheriff's department will have to buy cameras incrementally each year unless it secures a grant, Laney said. Just last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced $20 million in grant money for body cameras.

Laney said his department's decision to use body cameras stems from what he sees as the public's view that if "it's not on video, then it didn't happen."

"The public is our boss. And if the boss says, 'We expect cameras, and we expect that kind of accountability,' then we have to follow it," he said.

Privacy anxiety


For Ebinger, a major source of uncertainty about using body cameras is the absence of a Minnesota law outlining what footage is public and what is private.

"We deal with death scenes. We deal with a lot of tragedies," the Moorhead chief said. "There are people that will download that to YouTube and put it out on the web in a heartbeat."

To address this issue, North Dakota legislators passed a law this year that makes body camera footage taken in a private place, such as a home, an exempt record, meaning it can be made public only with the police agency's permission.

West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan, who helped draft the new state law, said his department experimented with body cameras about three years ago. The bouncy, low-quality footage the cameras recorded left him unconvinced that they would be a useful tool, he said.

For now, West Fargo police are not moving toward using body cameras, but that could change. "If there's going to be a large public push for us to have cameras, then, you know, we're going to have to consider what the citizens in the community want," Reitan said.

The mayors of Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead said that so far, no residents have come to them with an opinion either way about body cameras.

'Calming effect'

Research on body cameras is limited, but it's shown that they curb the number of complaints from the public, according to the Justice Department. This could be because officers are acting more lawfully and because people are making fewer false complaints of officer misconduct, said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.


Though it's not definitive, early research also suggests that body cameras can reduce use-of-force incidents and officer injuries at the hands of the public, Vigne said. This "calming effect" is something Ebinger noticed when video cameras were first installed on the dashboards of squad cars.

"Everybody plays to the camera, and that's wonderful," he said.

While body cameras are helpful in various ways, such as gathering evidence for criminal cases, there are drawbacks. One of those is the work of dealing with the massive amount of video that's collected.

"There's a man-hour component that goes along with (a body camera system), and that's what we found with the in-car video," Todd said. "We didn't realize how much time we would need to spend retrieving video, making it available to the prosecution and the defense in cases."

'Our own destiny'

The decision to put body cameras on officers is a far-reaching one, which affects anyone who comes into contact with police. In Fargo, the process would begin with the chief making a proposal to city commissioners, who would seek public input before issuing a decision, Mayor Tim Mahoney said.

The mayor pointed out that a body camera would have been helpful on June 4 when a Fargo police officer shot and wounded an alleged robber.

"I believe what Chief Todd tells me, but you know if (the officer) had a body camera on, you could see exactly what happened," Mahoney said.


Several cities in the region, including Duluth, Devils Lake and Grand Forks, have already outfitted their police officers with body cameras.

In Grand Forks, Lt. Dwight Love said his department started planning to use body cameras in August 2013. And it wasn't until a few months ago that all patrol officers began wearing them.

Love said a motivating factor in using cameras was the growing number of smartphone videos shot by the public and posted online, showing just segments of police encounters.

"We wanted to control our own destiny, so to speak, and have our footage and the whole incident videotaped from our perspective," he said.

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