Choosing a BWC provider is no small task – so why did this sheriff’s office make a switch?
The advantages of body-worn cameras in law enforcement and corrections are well-documented, but the disadvantages can be an unwelcome surprise. Learn why this agency sought a new vendor after only three years.
Sponsored by BodyWorn by Utility
By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff
Starting a body-worn camera program is not an endeavor most agencies take lightly. Not only is it a significant investment of money, it’s a significant investment of time.
The task is fraught with potential pitfalls and hidden costs if an agency doesn’t do its proper due diligence when going through the laborious process of determining features and requirements, issuing an RFP, choosing a vendor, developing policies, deciding how to store and manage an untold amount of video data, training officers and so on.
Imagine, then, going through the process and deciding less than three years later that it would be worth the money and effort to change vendors.
That was the decision made by the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) in Minnesota, which undertook a major change in its body-worn camera program in 2019.
When OCSO was first looking to implement a body-worn camera program in 2016, it did what most agencies do – relied on the experience of a neighboring agency to guide their decision.
Although the agency fortunately did not have any high-profile incidents that put them in a negative spotlight, the writing was on the wall as agencies across the country grappled with whether to use body-worn cameras to capture interactions to help exonerate officers or hold them accountable for misdeeds.
“We knew that we’re not far behind for having something like that happen. We’re only one call away from it,” said Capt. Scott Behrns of OCSO’s investigations and administrative services division. “We needed to be able to capture something that would be high-profile to show that, for the most part, our people do everything well.”
Besides that, Behrns knew that body-worn cameras would be useful on a day-to-day basis for evidence gathering, accountability for officers and deputies, accountability for citizens and other hidden benefits that body cameras can provide – like additional video evidence that the public defender’s office can use to convince their clients to enter into a plea agreement.
OCSO also oversees the county jail and work release facility. The agency instituted a body-worn camera program within its detention facilities at the same time as the patrol and investigations units, becoming one of the first correctional facilities in the nation to adopt a BWC program. They hoped that body cameras on correctional officers would affect detainee behavior in a positive way, which it did, according to Chief Deputy Brian Howard who oversees the detention facility.
“It really did make it safer in our facility, not only for our staff, but for our detainees,” Howard said.
Although corrections staff were initially apprehensive about wearing the bodycams, within a few weeks the benefit was apparent. An altercation broke out in one unit where bodycams had not yet been implemented, and the deputy working the unit did not have a BWC. Within moments, a deputy who was wearing a bodycam entered the unit, the detainees whispered “camera” among themselves, and the negative behavior stopped instantly.
But problems soon began to emerge that would take some of the shine off the promising new program.
An uncomfortable realization
One obvious issue with the initial body-worn cameras was that they were worn externally.
“The camera’s located outside the uniform, and it’s subject to falling off and subject to being covered up by a jacket,” said Behrns. “And it’s subject to a lot of wind noise, which caused us to miss some key audio statements that we needed.”
In one incident at the detention center, a detainee assaulted a corrections officer.
“The detainee punched our officer, and it literally shut off the camera and knocked it off the deputy’s uniform,” said Howard. “So that was a big thing for us in the beginning.”
Another shortcoming of the original BWC program was the download time.
“A deputy would have to come in, drop the camera off into a docking station and literally wait until it was done,” said Behrns. “For every hour of video, it took almost an hour to upload. That’s a long time.”
This delay sometimes caused problems during shift changes, when deputies are passing along information on high-priority calls.
“In a couple of high-profile calls, we missed some good video and good audio statements that we would like to have had simply because their camera was docked at the law enforcement center,” said Behrns.
To solve that problem, OCSO bought additional cameras so each deputy could have two cameras – one to dock and one to use. This was difficult and more expensive than they planned for – and they still had to wait for video, he added.
The long download times vexed the detention staff who would have to wait for video to download before watching it with the supervisor and making an informed decision about next actions.
These shortcomings, along with advancements in BWC technology, prompted Behrns to look for a possible replacement.
OCSO was already using Utility’s RocketIoT platform as their in-car video system, and the IT department brought the BodyWorn camera system to Behrns’ attention.
“IT was happy with the service they had seen with the Rocket that we had in our squad cars and said, ‘You should take a look at these and the benefits,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘You want me to switch? Really? You know what that does to this agency?’”
But the advantages of adding Utility’s BodyWorn cameras were substantial enough that Behrns got approval for OCSO to make the change.
Advantages of the new bodycam system
The BodyWorn Down feature of BodyWorn cameras from Utility convinced Behrns that a replacement was warranted. If an officer has become prone in the field and is in need of backup, BodyWorn starts an automatic recording, alerts all nearby officers and sends a call-for-help message that includes the officer’s GPS coordinates to the AVaiLWeb command center. BodyWorn also automatically starts recording if the built-in accelerometer senses that the wearer has started running and may be engaged in a foot pursuit.
“We had an incident before we had body cameras where one of our deputies was in a foot chase and was hit from behind by an unknown person, and almost choked out. If we had had the officer down alerts, we would have known where he was quicker,” said Behrns. “That deputy turned out to be OK, but I think about that incident and wish that we would have BodyWorn at that time.”
Another added feature BodyWorn cameras offer was the ability to automatically upload video from the BWC to secure cloud storage so officers would never again have to manually offload footage from the bodycam or wait for video to transfer.
“Now with the BodyWorn, officers can use their camera and watch their video while they’re writing the report and see what happened,” said Howard. “What could they have done differently? What did they do well? It works well for training, so our field training officers have the ability to review that with their new training deputies.”
In the jail, Howard appreciates how the BodyWorn cameras capture the entire processing of a suspect from the time they are booked into the facility and searched for contraband. Because all OCSO deputies use the same BWCs, it’s easy to integrate BWC video from the arrest all the way through detention.
“It’s all one integrated package, and it’s very nice,” he said, “not only for us, but for our county attorney.”
The BodyWorn cameras have solved the problems that OCSO had experienced with their prior system and given them new features that increase officer and deputy safety, provide greater situational awareness through the live video streaming feature, help hold officers accountable and offer greater transparency to the public.
“I can tell you that the BodyWorn camera system is reliable, and that it does what it needs to do on a daily basis,” said Behrns. “That is huge in our business.”
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