Board hears pitch for body cameras in Steele County
After the Owatonna Police Department officially initiated a body camera program at the tail end of 2019, Steele County is looking to follow suit and explore its own options when it comes to body worn cameras.
Due to several high-profile incidents in recent years, body cameras have become a topic of much discussion throughout the country.
On Dec. 19, Sheriff Lon Thiele welcomed John Watson, the Midwest Sales Manager for BodyWorn, to give a presentation on body cameras to the Steele County Board during its final meeting of 2019.
“He’s very impressed with these cameras, so much so that he thought that we should really dig deep and look into this system here,” Sheriff Thiele said prior to introducing Watson to the board.
Watson has police experience, having worked for 20 years in an Indiana police department. “We implemented cameras back in 2011,” Watson said of his experience using body camera systems. “I’ve lived all the pain points of selecting the wrong vendor.”
“Let me tell you from experience, if you’re going to invest money into a body camera program, the first time a tragic event happens on your streets, it better be recorded,” Watson said. “All too often you see in the media where officers forget to turn their body cameras on, because life on the streets as a police officer happens so extremely fast. Turning that camera on is the last thing that an officer needs to worry about when they’re just trying to stay alive.”
In order to eliminate the human element from the BodyWorn system, the program utilizes fully-automated cameras via smartphones carried in the officers’ vests, which are activated once an officer pulls their gun. “What we have done, is we have perfected automation,” Watson explained.
After activating, the cameras retroactively record two minutes prior to the gun being unholstered, which can give further context to any situation which may arise. “The buzzwords on body cameras are accountability and transparency, and how much more accountable and transparent can you be than with a fully automated system,” Watson said.
Other triggers which can activate the cameras include a deputy arriving on a predetermined scene, and a squad car involved in chase through speed detection. Another innovative function is the detection of shots fired by anyone within a certain radius of any given officer.
“We’re the only camera vender in the world that has a working holster sensor, and as you know in today’s culture, when the guns come out in a police call, it better be recorded,” Watson said. “Bad things can happen on calls when our guns come out.”
Watson also explained the usefulness of pre-recording two minutes prior to an officer drawing their gun. “It’s prerecording all the way back to when that deputy first showed up on the scene and that deputy was just first walking up and whatever happened in front of him where he came to the point where he had to draw his firearm,” Watson said.
When asked by Commissioner Jim Abbe if utilizing body cameras might increase the risk for litigation, Watson said that the opposite was, in fact, true. “The reality is that every call an officer goes on already has a camera there,” Watson said of the prevalence of smartphones and other recording devices within the general public.
“These cameras give us the opportunity to tell our story, from our perspective, and the entire story –not just the 10-second clip that a citizen decides to get on their cell phone from 30-feet away at a bad angle with bad lighting,” he explained of the importance of utilizing body cameras.
While the presentation was detailed, no immediate decision has been made at this time. The Sheriff’s Office and the County Board will continue to explore their options as they look to join the growing trend of law enforcement agencies across the country that have adopted body camera programs.