Some law enforcement agencies move forward with body cameras while others wait

OSCEOLA COUNTY — The topic of police officers wearing body cameras is an issue being discussed in law enforcement agencies across the country. While local departments agree the cameras have multiple benefits, there are issues to sort out before moving forward and using the equipment.

Mecosta County Sheriff Todd Purcell said his agency was testing different models of body camera prior to the increased push for officers to wear the devices. However, two main issues have caused Purcell to put a halt to the plan for body cameras.

The first problem is the cost for not only the cameras themselves but the storage of footage, which would cost “thousands and thousands” of dollars, Purcell said.

Purcell’s other concern is privacy issues, as all footage is accessible to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“No parameters have been set up at this point to allow law enforcement agencies to redact or edit any footage accessible to the public,” he said. “Right now, everything can be requested.”

Private conversations or interviews containing sensitive information are not exempt at this point, Purcell explained. Audio or footage being released in these cases are huge privacy concerns.

Big Rapids Department of Public Safety Director Andrea Nerbonne also cites privacy issues as a reason she has not yet bought cameras for her officers.

“There is a lot of legality that hasn’t been worked out, especially dealing with privacy and when the camera can be off and when it has to be on,” Nerbonne said. “Areas such as hospitals and private residences have privacy issues. Those are things which need to be worked through.”

Nerbonne said the cost is another factor in waiting to have body cameras throughout DPS. According to an April article on reuters.com, body cameras can cost between $350 and $700 apiece.

The cost and concerns with FOIAs and privacy also are reasons the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office does not yet have body cameras, said Undersheriff Justin Halladay.

Although Halladay is looking into getting the cameras in the future, he’d like to wait until the models are exactly what he’s looking for.

“We don’t want to purchase them as a knee-jerk reaction because of the push to get them with things going on right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of legality issues with how to long to hold images for, as well as what is and isn’t FOIA-able, so we are looking, but they are expensive and there are concerns.”

Halladay said he is looking for a system that correlates and interfaces with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office in-car cameras, so it’s not a separate system to maintain.

While some local agencies are waiting, both the Evart Police Department and the Reed City Police Department have been using the equipment.

The Evart Police Department has body cameras for each officer and have utilized them for seven years, said Chief Kendra Backing.

"I applaud our former chief for introducing them to the department because they have been valuable to the department in many ways," she said.

Backing notes body cameras allow for first-person point of view which allows for transparency, accountability and the best evidence documentation. Events are recorded in real-time and the footage is a very promising tool for law enforcement, court officials and citizens.

The Reed City Police Department has been using body cameras for the last few months and previously used body cameras for a short time several years ago, said Chief Chuck Davis.

“Technology has come a long way. The first ones we had only lasted a little while because they were inexpensive and broke down, then we didn’t keep up on it,” Davis said. “We’ve been testing and checking into new ones for a long time now, even before all of this discussion came up.”

The body cameras cost about $12,000 for RCPD. Davis acknowledges the issue some have with storage, but required retention time is 30 days unless a case is ongoing and that’s what his department sticks to. His department has four cameras, one for each officer, with the footage turned over to the sergeant at the end of each shift.

The cameras can do video, photo, audio and have night vision capability. In-car cameras limit the view to the patrol car, but body cams give access anywhere, with both voice and images, Davis said.

Backing acknowledges one disadvantage of having body cameras is people having the misguided belief the recordings will solve everything.

"Technology is great when it works, but equipment does fail and there are many considerations for department issued body cameras that need to be considered specific to policy development, privacy rights, storage capacity, accessibility to the footage," Backing said.

However, Backing believes the benefits largely outweigh any potential drawbacks. The department will be getting new body cameras in the next few weeks that will offer greater recording distance, battery life, storage capacity and higher resolution, with automatic infrared illuminations and directional audio.

Halladay also believes body cameras can be a huge asset to police and aid them in doing their job.

“They increase the safety of the officer, as well as the safety of the public,” Halladay said. “A lot of people look at cameras as an opportunity to catch officers doing wrong and if that’s what they think cameras do, so be it. But cameras are so much more than that. They also catch officers doing right, they catch criminals and they enhance prosecution.”

Body cameras are tools for officers and give them an extra set of eyes and witness to the scene, he said.

“And if that helps them maintain their professionalism and do a good job, that’s a positive as well,” he said. “These are expensive and we can’t just budget them, but I’m hoping within the next year.”

For Purcell, there is no timetable for when he’d like to get body cameras. While he sees benefits, he’s still wary.

“My stance is until the FOIA issues are addressed and changed, I don’t believe body cameras are worth violating citizens’ privacy,” he said. “After consultation with the county’s chief prosecutor, the issues of cost of storage and issues with the Freedom of Information Act, we made the decision to discontinue going forward with purchasing cameras at this point.”