by ZACH KAYSER
Both the Winona Police Department (WPD) and the Winona County Sheriff’s Office want to have body cameras deployed in the near future, but each agency faces a variety of questions to figure out as they develop their respective programs.
Sheriff Ron Ganrude said the process until this point had been complex. “It’s a long process when you have to go through getting the county attorney’s approval on the contract, and picking the vendor,” he said.
County Attorney Karin Sonneman was not available for comment.
The Winona County Board approved $57,000 for body cameras last year. Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller said that earlier contract negotiations with a different body camera company had broken down, leading to the sheriff’s office to redo the process. However, the department can use the same money that was allocated for the earlier body camera initiative, he said. Contract negotiations with the new company, the Silicon Valley-based Visual Labs, are ongoing but close to completion, Mueller said. He anticipated that officers on patrol will have body cameras sometime in the midsummer.
On its website, Visual Labs has the tagline “the body camera company that does not make body cameras.”
The body cameras themselves are essentially smartphones with a rugged cover, Mueller said. Furthermore, through a possible new contract for cell service from AT&T, the sheriff’s office would get the phones themselves for free, Mueller said. What they would pay Visual Labs for is the software that runs the cell phone’s camera as a body camera, as well as the costs associated with storing the recordings.
The sheriff’s office policy regarding use of the body cameras is sourced from Lexipol, Ganrude said. Lexipol is a Texas and California-based subscription service for law enforcement agencies. The company studies the laws of various states and writes policy manuals for those law enforcement agencies in order to shield them from, according to its website, “physical, financial and political risks.”
Initially, the body cameras will be issued to deputies on patrol, but the program may be expanded later on to include sheriff’s investigators and jail staff, Ganrude said. The video recordings will be stored in the cloud, he said.
The main impetus behind the push for body cameras was to shield the department from liability, Ganrude said. “It protects the people that we’re interacting with,” he said. “It also protects the deputy that’s out there. It’s no more ‘he said, she said.’”
Hopefully, the implementation of body cameras helps prevent civilians from making what Ganrude called “accusations” against deputies, he said. “I think it will keep people from falsely reporting misconduct by officers, or falsely reporting crimes,’ he said.
Minnesota law dictates that body camera footage is generally considered private, that is, unviewable by the public. However, law enforcement agencies have the prerogative to release footage if they feel it will “aid law enforcement, promote public safety, or dispel rumor or unrest.” Subjects of body camera footage can also request to have the footage released to them. Finally, footage that shows an officer shooting their gun or otherwise using force that results in “substantial bodily harm” is public.
The law also specifically lays out the procedure by which someone may sue the police department in order to release the body camera footage.
Winona Police studying body cams, too
Police Chief Tom Williams said his department’s newly formed “technology committee” is studying both body cameras and vehicle-mounted cameras, with the hope that both systems will use the same kind of recording system. Next month, the department will complete the final round of meetings with a total of seven different vendor companies, Williams said.
The WPD did not know whether the Minnesota Legislature would make body cameras mandatory, and possibly provide funding to local departments, he said. The Legislature ultimately did not make them mandatory.
In 2019, City Manager Steve Sarvi expressed hesitancy to adopt body cameras, citing well-known instances where cameras were turned off during critical interactions with citizens.
“We’re not opposed to it,” he said at the time. “We want to do it, but we want to do it when it’s the right time to do it.”
Body camera systems can range from $50,000 to $300,000, Williams said. Asked to describe the ideal vendor, Williams said the product should be durable, user friendly in that activation and deactivation was mostly automated, and have reasonably good audio and visual quality.
The department is deciding whether to store the data locally or on remote servers like the sheriff’s office, as well as whether to buy or lease the cameras. The WPD also needs to get approval from the city council, and Williams said they needed their plan settled before that presentation.
Footage from a squad car-mounted camera arguably played a crucial role in the acquittal of Daryl Jackson in 2018 on charges of assaulting Winona Police Department officers before they shot him.
Asked what the primary motivation for the body camera initiative was, Williams said it was openness. “The million dollar term that everybody is utilizing lately is ‘transparency’” he said. “Just so that everybody in the public can see what is taking place when an officer is on a call … I think it’s also two-pronged from a law enforcement standpoint: to, number one, show the public just how good a job the officers do when they’re sent on [a call], and to protect the officers as well against the possibility of any claims that are maybe not justified in the sense of a use of force aspect … The officers are finding themselves saying, ‘Yeah, we want the body cameras, because we want the public to see the situations we’re dealing with and how well we deal with them. And I want it to protect myself to show that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m doing what I’m paid to be doing, and not have any false accusations or claims against me.’”