Minnesota's tiny police departments have learned the value of body cameras


The man complained that an officer had lifted $10,000 cash from him. When Anderson produced the footage, the accuser withdrew his complaint and walked out before he could be charged for making a false report.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation is looking into another officer-involved shooting after Willmar police were summoned to help a suicidal man on Sunday.

Officers Marco Vazquez and Anthony Haycraft arrived. They found 46-year-old Matthew Smith in his backyard, holding a gun. At some point, both officers fired. Smith was treated at St. Cloud Hospital, but no details were available about his injuries or condition.

The BCA is conducting interviews with witnesses, but their investigation is complicated by the lack of police footage. Squad cameras were out of range, and Willmar police don’t wear body cams.

Not that they aren’t trying to bring them on. The Willmar PD requested funding last year to purchase its first cameras and start up a footage storage system. It’s just taken a long time, and according to the West Central Tribune, Mayor Marv Calvin doesn’t want the city to rush that work in response to the shooting.

They’re not the only ones taking it slow.

According to the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, at least 40 departments throughout the state currently use body cams. Out of the 320 that the association represents, that’s less than 15 percent.
There’s no comprehensive list either, so the Chiefs of Police Association is trying to build one to get a better sense.

An on-going survey has received about 170 responses to date. Based on those answers, agencies with body cams range from the large forces of Minneapolis and St. Paul all the way down to the state’s tiniest departments.

Chiefs of Police spokesman Joe Sheeran says the cameras themselves aren’t all that expensive; it’s the cost of storing a massive amount of video that makes chiefs balk. Because small departments employ fewer officers, they’re beating many of the big suburbs in the body camera race.

A sample of these include Clearbrook-Gonvick (pop. 800), Gilbert (pop. 1,800), Tracy (pop. 2,200), Roseau (pop. 2,633), Elko New Market (pop. 4,100), Isanti (pop. 5,300), East Grand Forks (8,601), Big Lake (pop. 10,000), and Hutchinson (pop. 14,178).

The Roseau Police Department was a pioneer, buying one body camera for its day-shift and night-shift officer to share when the technology first hit the market about eight years ago. Before high profile shootings and the question of police accountability captivated the nation, that body cam was nothing more than a tool for ordinary police work – documenting crime scenes, recording sobriety field tests.

The amount of data was so small at first that Sgt. Jeff Klein stored it on his personal computer. Now they’ve upgraded to an internal server.

It soon paid off.

Chief Ward Anderson recalls that within a month of having the camera, one of his officers stopped and talked to a drunk guy walking along the river. The next day, the man went to the sheriff’s office complaining that the officer had lifted $10,000 cash from him. When Anderson produced the footage, the accuser withdrew his complaint and walked out before he could be charged for making a false report.

“I seems like nowadays, nobody’s word is good enough. It has to be on video,” Anderson says. “It’s sad, but I think it’s a great tool, and the guys who were reluctant to wear them have now completely done a 180, and are now wearing them all the time.”

The Elko New Market Police Department’s cameras have been rolling since 2011. They’ve had no use-of-force complaints in all that time, so the body cams are typically used just to collect evidence.
They’re so helpful in scoring guilty pleas and saving time in court, Chief Steven Mortenson says, that he can’t imagine going back to a time without them.

Big Lake Chief Joel Scharf considers his body cameras a form of cheap insurance. He just had an allegation two weeks ago that an officer bashed a man’s head into the hood of his car during the course of a meth arrest. The video showed no use of force at all.

Scharf was sold on body cams a couple years ago, when he was out on the street covering for a staff shortage. He stopped a stolen car in a high-density neighborhood. There was a lot of yelling back and forth. When he turned around, a group of bystanders had their phones out, recording him. He didn’t have a problem with that, Scharf says, but it made him wish there'd been some way to capture the full context of the stop.

Now, his 12 sworn officers (mostly millennials, he admits) have a tendency to record more than they have to. But just seeing what’s happening in Minneapolis over the lack of footage in the Justine Damond shooting, he’s relieved. At least cloud storage cuts down on costs.

Even now, other departments may be wary of how body cams would be perceived by the public, how to deal with data practices, get financing through their cities, and ease their officers into the idea of recording their day-to-day work, Scharf says.

“We kind of did everything backwards. We’ll commit to body cameras and figure out all the other things later. Because I think a lot of people get overwhelmed.”


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