By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN Body-worn cameras are becoming more common in metro-area police departments, and the City of Winsted has been exploring the idea, as well.
At a work session Aug. 15, Police Chief Justin Heldt presented information about the costs, benefits, and potential drawbacks of having officers wear body cameras while on calls.
Overall, Heldt said he believes the cameras would help officers do their jobs better and would reaffirm the work they are already doing. He added that when there is a question of how something happened, the cameras would provide proof that is not based on one person’s word against another.
The cost for body-worn cameras varies depending on the features that are included.
Digital Ally, which is the company that currently supplies Winsted’s squad car cameras, offered a price of $7,400 for five body-worn cameras. This amount does not include server storage for the video files. Also, a third-party program would be needed for the ability to redact information from videos.
A second company, WatchGuard, offered a similar deal, at $6,300 for six cameras, with no server storage or redaction capabilities.
Heldt said he does not feel comfortable having the city store its own video data, because high costs (as much as $50,000) can arise when a server goes down.
The third company Heldt contacted was Taser International, which changed its name to Axon in April.
For six cameras, Axon offered a price of $20,756 divided over five years. Upgrades are included, and the cameras would be replaced at no extra charge if they are damaged. This price also includes redaction capabilities, as well as video storage on a cloud server.
“This removes a lot of liability from the city,” Heldt said, explaining that if data is lost or stolen, the city would not be at fault unless it’s something the city had control over.
If and when Winsted decides to implement body-worn cameras, the city plans to have a policy in place for how to use them, and how to handle data requests.
“The policy can be developed with input from the public,” Heldt said. “They have a big stake in it, just as much as we do.”
Public hearings will be scheduled if the city decides to pursue purchasing body cameras.
Heldt said he would like to see all full-time officers with cameras on during their calls. Cameras would not need to be on during times like lunch breaks, while filling out reports, or while talking to another officer.
Requests for public viewing of video footage would be handled under the advisement of legal counsel. In general, if a person in a video does not give consent, that person’s image can be blurred out, or “redacted.”
Council Member Mike Henrich asked how much extra time officers would need to devote to handling requests to view video footage.
Heldt said the amount of time could be nothing, or it could be substantial, depending on what types of requests come in. He added that the police department does not currently get many data requests for the squad car cameras.
City Administrator Dan Tienter commented that the cameras wouldn’t change the city’s “overall landscape” for data requests.
“It’s just another form of data we would have to search through,” he said.
If a large request came through, it is possible the city would need to hire outside help to meet the need.
Currently, the Hutchinson Police Department is the only entity in McLeod County to use body cameras. (Heldt noted that Brownton had them awhile back, but is not using them.)
Heldt said that from what he’s heard, Hutchinson’s first few months of having the cameras has been successful, and the officers like them.
Council Member Patty Fitzgerald said the cost of the cameras is less than she thought it would be. She added that she is in favor of getting the cameras “at some point,” but she is not sure if now is the right time.
The council directed city staff to check with the Hutchinson Police Department and other agencies with body cameras to see how much time is spent on data requests, on average.
A peek at next year’s budget
The 2018 property tax levy won’t be final until December, but the council is beginning to take a closer look at the potential budget.
Last year’s levy increase was 4.99 percent. This year, Tienter proposed a 5.32 percent increase to start, with the option to lower it.
For a home with a value of $163,000, this would mean an extra $63 in property taxes for the year.
The preliminary levy will be set in September. The final levy can be lower than the preliminary, but not higher. The council is planning to have multiple meetings dedicated to a detailed discussion of the budget before finalizing the numbers.
Odds and ends
In other business, the council:
• authorized an agreement with SafeAssure Consultants, Inc. to provide a safety program for the City of Winsted in the amount of $3,017. The program provides the city with compliance recommendations, training, and consultations that meet the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
• appointed Tianyi Zhang to the position of volunteer firefighter with the Winsted Fire Department contingent upon passing a criminal background check and drug/alcohol test.
• authorized a proposal with Independent Testings Technologies, Inc. in the amount of $1,650 to perform geotechnical services for the Industrial Boulevard reclamation project.