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City approves full rollout of police body cameras

The Hastings City Council approved a full implementation of a police body-worn camera program at its Monday meeting, Dec. 5.

Police have been working through a pilot program for the past year. Every member of the patrol department got to spend two months wearing one of eight cameras, explained Chief of Police Bryan Schafer. In that time, officers were given a chance to test out the equipment as well as new policies guiding how the cameras are to be used.

Officers assessed the cameras, addressing their functionality, ease of use and any concerns raised regarding their use.

"I think we've done our due diligence," Schafer told the council.

Monday's vote gave the green light for the police department to spent about $12,500 in 2017 to purchase an additional 15 cameras, bringing the total up to 23, enough to equip all the city's patrol officers.

The cameras offer a degree of transparency for police, Schafer said.

"We want the public to know that we are accountable for what we do," he said.

They also offer police a new method of evidence collection, some safety for officers as well as those they interact with, and assistance for officers in recalling events prior to writing their reports.

The devices themselves are low-profile, with a battery pack that tucks into a uniform's front pocket, connected by a cord to a clip-on camera lens that attaches to the front of the uniform. The cameras record in HD quality. Schafer said that officers will turn the cameras on for every call, but are able to turn them off once they arrive if they determine that recording a situation would serve no purpose.

The recordings created by body cameras are generally considered private or nonpublic, according to a new Minnesota state law. There are some exceptions. Body camera footage is considered public for incidents in which an officer discharges a firearm, or when use of force by an officer results in substantial bodily harm. Recordings may also be made public upon request by the subject of the recording, subject to redaction of nonpublic data by police prior to release. Recordings that contain public personnel data, as defined by state law, are also considered public.

Mayor Paul Hicks said he was "very, very glad" that the Legislature deemed the camera data generally private. The question of who could access the data was his top concern when Hastings began the program, he said.

"They weighed in the way I'd like to see it go," he said. "It's private data unless you have an interest being in that tape or because of the critical incidences that might occur. I think that these are very sensitive situations, they can be, and I think the Legislature weighed in on the right side."

The majority of the data recorded — 75 to 80 percent, Schafer said — will only be stored for 90 days. Hastings police store the data locally, which will require about $2,000 to continue every three years, at least by current technology costs.

Schafer said that police supervisors in Hastings conduct an audit of officers' camera usage once a month. The purpose, he said, is to ensure officers are using the cameras as intended. Officers are allowed to view the recordings prior to writing their incident reports, except in critical incidents when the officer's recollection and sense of the situation is critical to determining the appropriate action. That, too, Schafer said, is outlined by the state.

"We're following the law," he said.

Councilmember Tony Alongi praised the program, saying that he's glad Hastings got the policy and nuances involved in body camera usage and data practices right.

"I consider this to be one of the signature achievements of the last few years by this city," he said.

While Councilmember Mark Vaughan asked for a future analysis of ongoing costs for the city to use the cameras, Alongi pointed out that there will be savings, as well, as the cameras can help the city avoid frivolous complaints and reach resolutions more quickly.

"Fortunately, we're never going to have to live in the alternate universe where we don't have this," Alongi said.