It has been seven weeks since the Dickinson Police Department launched its body camera system, with more than 3,450 video evidence files captured during calls for service. Lt. Mike Hanel and Lt. Matthew Hanson gave The Press a full-on tour of how this new equipment ensures officer safety, maintains transparency with the community and incorporates a new tool for collecting evidence for court cases.
All officers and investigators will be required to wear a body camera while on patrol and in the field. The only current exception will be for school resource officers, Hanson said, adding that they are leaving it up to the schools to determine what is the most appropriate approach for a classroom setting.
Hanson noted that any processing of evidence is shareable within police staff. For example, if one officer is searching for a suspect and another officer comes across that individual on their body camera, they could pass along that video file.
“... It just gives the officer such a better perspective when reviewing a report or when having to testify to something,” Hanson said. “... We’ve gotten nothing but great feedback from all the officers that have been running them.”
Since the Dickinson City Commission approved the purchase of 35 body cameras on April 6, the department has been hopeful that this new equipment will not only act as a safeguard against potential police malfeasance, but will help ensure that officers doing the right things in the field will be cleared in the event of a facetious complaint.
“I've already seen complaints that have been able to come through that (process) instead of it turning into an officer's word against the suspect’s because it didn't get captured in front of that car… Maybe you're hearing some things, but you're not seeing things or maybe you have nothing at all. I've been able to curb those because I want to say at least a handful of times already; we can just go straight to the footage, and it's crystal clear. The audio is great, the video is great,” Hanson said. “So it's absolutely going to bring that level to our professionalism too as far as just the public knowing that the interactions are all being recorded.”
The body camera purchase was made possible through the utilization of the CARES COVID/Law Enforcement Reimbursement fund. The approximate cost for the 35 cameras and licenses totaled just shy of a quarter of a million dollars, at $217,000 over the course of a five-year contract.
All of the officers have been required to undergo training in the proper usage in late June.
“Right out of the gates, it was a learning curve, because it's that much more evidence. When you think about the amount of clerical work that an officer comes across on a day-to-day basis, they're now in charge of one extra piece of evidence that they have to get,” Hanson said.
Each body camera has a feature called “signal sight,” which automatically sends a Bluetooth alert to the camera anytime an officer removes a weapon from their holster and it turns the camera on. This acts as a “failsafe,” and turns on that 30-second buffer. If other officers come into that type of scene and fail to turn on their video cameras, that same Bluetooth notification turns on the body cameras of those in close proximity, Hanson explained.
Later this year, the department is hoping to acquire the same notification system for when an officer has to deploy their taser.
“They function very similar to the in-car videos where there’s a 30-second buffer. So the cameras technically always recording, but only video,” Hanel said. “And if the officer decides to record and activate the camera, it will rewind on that buffer (and) the 30 seconds (will) capture that video, and then start recording video and audio from the second the button (gets) pushed.”
DPD is one of the first on the Western Edge, besides the Williston Police Department, to acquire this new equipment. Other departments continue to rely solely on dash camera video footage.
“This is going to enhance the professionalism of our department. Body cams have been somewhat expected of the public. Anytime there’s a high critical incident, one of the first questions is, ‘Where is the body cam footage?’ So the time for us had arrived,” Hanel remarked.
Each camera captures both video and audio. The policy of turning on those cameras is not necessarily on every single time an officer leaves their patrol vehicle, Hanson said, explaining that they require officers to turn them on during any interviews with the public in an official police capacity.
“... Whether you're interviewing somebody, whether you're making a traffic stop, whether you're on a call, whether you're talking to a victim, talking to a suspect — we're going to be running those cameras,” he said.
All of the video evidence will be stored for 90 days. Depending on the severity of the situation, some of those videos will be stored for longer periods of time such as with court cases. Each video is categorized. For example, if a traffic stop occurs, it will be categorized as such. However, if there is an arrest during that traffic stop, that will be recategorized, Hanson added.
Both prosecutors — city and state — also have access to shared video evidence that comes through for a criminal case, Hanson noted, adding that evidence will stay intact and will not be disposed of.
One of the other features to these body cameras is that it can create a citizen portal, in which residents who see a crime happening nearby can easily provide law enforcement with digital evidence in a timely manner. Though Hanson said they’re still working on launching that portal, he’s hopeful that will be another asset to solving crimes.
“Now, the one really unique thing about this is if we had a large-scale incident, let's say maybe we had a drive-by shooting at a gas station or something like that. And in the footage that we're looking at from that gas station, maybe we see many people outside and we thought maybe they had some information; maybe they have video footage; maybe they have something that could help us. But we don't know who they are, we can't identify them. We could actually open up a portal, and push it out like social media. We could push it out on the TV screen, so that the public can actually tap in and say, ‘Hey, I have information on this.’ (Then) they can provide us (with) that information so we can know who we're looking for and how to get that information,” Hanson noted.
From an officer safety perspective, Hanel added that these body cameras allow for a supervisor to log into the portal and tap into that live footage and verify the status of an officer if they happen to come across an active scene or if there is a potential struggle.
Normally, 9-11 operators have a procedure on how often they conduct officer checks. However, this is just an added verification step to make sure that officers are safe throughout their shifts.
“It's a really cool feature. Originally when we got it, we thought it was going to be really beneficial just for SWAT right out of the gates, having all my operators out and where they're at and me, being able to constantly keep tabs on them. But it's become much more than that,” Hanson said, adding, “All of our patrol supervisors, they love that feature. Again, it's an officer safety thing.”
Hanel added, “We’ve crafted our policy to make sure we’re in compliance with North Dakota open record laws and just our regular retention schedule. So if it is of evidentiary value, depending on the severity of the crime that it takes so long we have to hold onto that video.”
During situations where an expectation of privacy exists such as in a hospital or restroom, there is the ability for redaction, Hanel said, adding that they can use audio masking, skin and object blurs.