Sheriff’s dept. deploys body cams

Photo by Chris Rogers

Winona County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Adam Carlson and the rest of the department’s full-time officers are now outfitted with body cameras.

After years of discussions, body cameras are here. Late last month, the Winona County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) deployed body cameras for the first time. It is now the only law enforcement agency in the county using them. Next year, the Winona Police Department (WPD) aims to follow suit. Police leaders say the technology promises to improve evidence gathering, promote public trust, and safeguard officers.

The cameras themselves aren’t too foreign. The black body-worn camera clipped to WCSO Deputy Adam Carlson’s jacket is literally a common smartphone with a special app. Every full-time licensed officer in the department, from patrol to administration, now wears one, as well as the county’s jail staff, Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller explained.

The WCSO has been eyeing body cameras for a few years now, and the County Board approved a roughly $60,000 budget for their purchase in 2019. “I think the public expects us to have them,” Sheriff Ron Ganrude said at the time. Actually implementing that plan took a lot of detailed planning: developing policies for how to securely store the video, planning for how to respond to requests for the footage, shopping around among the multitude of body cam options, and training deputies on their use. Even finding the best way to attach the cameras to deputies’ gear proved a bit tricky.

“It feels good,” Mueller said of finally having the cameras in use. “It’s been kind of a long haul. It’s been kind of one thing after the other, but it’s nice to finally have them up and running.” He added, noting that the WCSO’s status as the only department in the county with body cams, “It’s something that we wanted to be out in front of in doing because we think it’s important.”

As for why the department is jumping on board, Mueller said, “It’s helpful for telling the complete story and what the deputy was doing and why they were involved.” Both the WCSO and WPD have long had dashboard cameras. However, Mueller said, “The in-car camera system was limited, obviously, in what it could see, so there was a lot of stuff that was out of its view.” The new technology allows for “better documenting scenes, better documenting statements, better documenting what an officer’s perspective was on scene … just a more complete understanding of what the scenario was,” he said.

That’s helpful for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even supervisors, Mueller said. “It’s literally that simple for me to pull it up and get a first-hand view of what happened,” he explained.

It can be useful for officers, too. Carlson said he used his body camera’s audio to take voice memos of what he was witnessing on a scene to augment his later notes.

Winona Police Chief Tom Williams said the WPD aims to have body cameras some time in the first half of 2022. Though the WPD budget is taking hits elsewhere, a $61,000 line item for body-worn cameras survived the city’s last round of budget cuts. 

“Obviously the use of body cameras adds to the aspect of transparency for the department,” Williams said. “It’s really about protection for both the public and the police to make sure the public is treated with the respect and care they deserve and to protect officers from frivolous claims.” He continued, “I think prosecution as well as defense really looks forward to this next step for us.” 

Perhaps the best argument for them, however, Williams said, was the potential to save the city from any lawsuits. “You have a couple hundred thousand dollar investment that could potentially save you from a multi-million dollar lawsuit, I think that’s a good investment,” he said.

Under the WCSO’s policy, deputies are required to record essentially all law enforcement activities: responses to calls for surface, traffic stops, pursuits, and any interactions that become adversarial. They are not required to record casual interactions.

While the Visual Labs system the WCSO purchased is capable of automatically triggering recording when, for example, deputies activate their emergency lights, speed over 90 miles per hour, and arrive on a predetermined scene, Mueller said the department is still working out some technical issues. For now, the cameras are activated manually only, and the WCSO hopes to add automatic triggers in the future.

That means the WCSO has to train its deputies on when to turn on the cameras and check to make sure they are doing so. 

“It’s a learning curve starting up,” Carlson said. “Today I made a traffic stop. I was halfway through the stop and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, my camera.’” 

Mueller said that he is holding deputies accountable for activating their cameras. “The vast majority have not been an issue, and if it is an issue, it’s documented right away,” he stated.

Automatic triggers are a priority for the WPD. “The conscious decision to turn it on — I want to make that as automatic as possible,” Williams said. He continued, “If you’re on a hot call — which is exactly when you want that footage — it’s one more thing the officer has to remember.”

While the capabilities vary depending on the software, other automatic triggers include when officers draw their weapons or when officers are prone and motionless, a so-called officer-down detector.

Most body camera footage will never be available to the general public. Under state law, footage is only public — with few exceptions — when there is a police shooting or use of force that causes substantial harm. However, the individuals documented in the footage are entitled to access it, unless it is part of an ongoing criminal investigation, and defense attorneys will be able to access the footage in criminal cases. 

Before the WPD can acquire its body cameras, the department needs to draft its policy for their use and hold a public comment period. Williams said he hopes the cameras will be in use by next summer.

“I hate to make predictions, but I would think that every officer and department in the country will have [body cameras] in the near future,” Mueller said.