Angry voices and broken bottles bouncing off a brick street, a knife driven between a man's ribs, an embarrassing slip on the ice — it may all soon be on live video at the Winona police station. Today and over the coming weeks, the Winona Police Department (WPD) will refine plans for a pilot project that would install four to eight cameras in the heart of downtown and stream live video to dispatchers and patrol officers.
Police currently utilize video footage captured by shopkeepers' security cameras and bystanders' cellphones, both of which are increasingly widespread. However, unlike those sources, the proposed cameras and their footage would be owned by the city and streamed live to the dispatch center and to squad cars, providing instant information on violent outbursts, identifying offenders before they can flee, and providing more clear evidence of both guilt and innocence. The department has dubbed the proposal Safecam.
So far, four business owners in the center of downtown have volunteered to host Safecam cameras, which involves paying for the camera's electricity use.
There are still details that need to be finalized; however, Deputy Police Chief Tom Williams hoped that the Safecam system could be in place this year, perhaps as soon as late this month, in time for the increase in late-night foot traffic the city experiences at the start of every fall semester.
Williams has sought feedback on the Safecam concept and privacy concerns from the local Bar Association, including many local defense attorneys, and the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), a catchall organization of judges, prosecutors, attorneys, corrections officers, and law enforcement officials. Among other things, CJCC members have encouraged the WPD to develop a policy on the proper use of the system, Williams said. "It would be reviewed to be sure that people are not just watching to watch, similar to the scrutiny we've come under for driver's license checks," he explained, referencing recent lawsuits over officers' alleged misuse of driver's license databases that contain sensitive information. Public employees across the state — including officers and government officials outside of law enforcement in Winona County, the city of Winona, and Goodview — have been accused of accessing individuals' private data through such databases without any legitimate purpose.
In a draft policy that the CJCC will review today, the WPD laid out its proposed controls on misuse of the system. Supervisors would monitor the use of the system to ensure that it is not being abused and improper use of the system would result in disciplinary actions, the policy states. According to the policy, WPD employees would not be allowed to watch citizens with Safecam solely because of the citizens' race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, et cetera. Recordings that are not saved as evidence would be public information, but would be destroyed after 30 days.
The WPD has considered live feed video systems before, in 2008 after a spate of bar fights and again in 2011, when the city received quotes of $12,000 to $17,000 to design a system. Last year, after La Crosse completed its half-million-dollar camera system, the Winona Post interviewed WPD leaders about efforts to install a system in Winona. They detailed the technological challenges that contributed to high cost estimates, and when a local cable provider saw the news story, they approached Williams. "You know, Tom, things have changed dramatically in terms of video, and we'd like to show some things," Williams recalled the company's staff saying.
Now, a four-camera pilot project is estimated to cost $4,100. An eight-camera project, would cost roughly twice as much.
The WPD has yet to determine how such a system would be paid for. Williams was hopeful that private donations might be part of the program's funding. "Obviously I'd like to see someone say, 'Hey, here's $30,000,'" Williams said. However, funding could also be paid for in the city's Capital Improvement Project (CIP) budget, out of the WPD budget, or with some combination of private and public funding.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on Safecam.