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Sheriff’s department gets body cam approval

body cam, steele county, sheriff, thiele, jarett
Joni Hubred, News Editor

While a little late to the game, Steele County Sheriff’s Deputies will soon be wearing body cameras.

Sheriff Lon Thiele told county commissioners last week that the delay was intentional, to see how the equipment worked for other agencies and waiting for a better price. He said Steele is not the only agency to take its time.

“Body-worn cameras are not mandatory (in Minnesota),” Thiele said, adding almost half of the state’s agencies still don’t have them.

Officials approved the purchase of 26 cameras, 24 for licensed deputies and two spares, from Motorola. Thiele said the equipment will be compatible with existing equipment.

The total cost of the package, which includes five years of video evidence management services, is $141,120.

Commissioners also held a public hearing for a new policy governing the use of portable video and audio recorders. No public comments were received during or before the hearing.

Thiele said the policy was developed by Lexipol, a Texas-based company that bills itself as “an entire risk management solution for public safety and local government”, and vetted by the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association.

Commission chair Jim Abbe asked about language in the policy that seems to give deputies some discretion about when to use their cameras, with use of the word “should”.

“Are we opening up our employees to liability if it’s discretionary when you turn your camera on and turn it off?” he asked.

Sgt. Chad Forystek explained that the camera is always on, but there’s not a red light to show that it’s recording until the officer activates it to capture a recording. The camera stores two or three days’ worth of data, and it’s possible to go in with Motorola’s proprietary software, enter a time frame, and pull a recording of that time period from the camera.

After two or three days, he added, the data is rewritten and no longer available.

County attorney Robert Jarrett said he doesn’t see the county having any liability; however, the officer would be personally liable for violating the department’s policy.

"A member of the public couldn’t bring an action against an officer for not turning on the camera,” he said. ”I would support this language."

In addition to accountability, the body worn cameras will help settle frivolous lawsuits, he added.

Jarrett also explained that recordings are subject to the Freedom of Information Act; however, there may be private, confidential, and public data on the recordings. Unredacted recordings will go to his office for use in cases. If someone made a personal request unrelated to a criminal matter, confidential information would be redacted, with a charge for the time and resources necessary to do that.

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