OWATONNA — The use of body-worn cameras has become more prevalent among law enforcement entities throughout the state, and they may finally make an appearance in Steele County.

Body cameras have been a point of discussion for the Owatonna Police Department and the Owatonna City Council for some time, but until recently it was only an aspiration. After a three-month trial and evaluation period of three different vendors, Capt. Jeff Mundale presented to the city council on Tuesday the findings of the evaluations and the proposal to official implement the program.

“The primary purpose of using body-worn cameras is to capture evidence arising from police-citizen encounters,” Mundale explained. “The use of [the cameras] is intended to enhance the mission of the department by accurately capturing contacts between members of the department and the public.”

While many view body cameras as a way to hold law enforcement accountable for their actions, Mundale said that the program is much more than that. Not only does it keep officers accountable, but it holds the public accountable as well. Referencing what is known as the Hawthorne effect, Mundale noted that people can tend to behave different because they know they are being watched or recorded. The effect occurs when an individual modifies any aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.

He added that the data collected by the cameras may also yield information that could assist in a criminal prosecution.

“This is just one extra tool in our toolbox that we could use to enhance the mission of our police department,” Mundale stated. “It’s not meant to serve as the one and only piece of evidence in a case.”

Mundale noted that the data collected on body cameras is never going to be perfect for a number of different variables. Because the cameras only capture two-dimensional visuals, the footage won’t give an appropriate account on depth perception in a situation. The camera will also only be able to record what is directly in front of it, meaning it will largely depend on what direction the user is facing as well any possible visual disruptions that could get in the way.

“There are a lot of variables that can come up in the fast-paced, dynamic environment of this job,” Mundale added. “These cameras will also never show what the officer is feeling or thinking.”

While the transparency, accountability, and evidence documentation are clear reasons for all law enforcement to adapt a body camera policy, Mundale said that there are several obstacles that had to first be looked at. These areas include data privacy, data storage, and overall cost.

“We were sitting back to watch what was going to happen with state law,” Mundale admitted when it came to how the data collected by cameras would be handled. “When the data was declared private, it made all the difference.”

Mundale explained that data collected on the body cameras, such as entering a person’s home for a domestic call or speaking with an individual during a traffic stop, will not be readily available data for the public to access.

Instead, members of the public seeking to view this information must receive consent from the individuals in the footage, which is obtained via a document supplied by the police department.

“If they do not receive consent we can still release the footage but we would have to redact the images and audio of those folks that are not consenting,” Mundale explained.

There are some exceptions to the data privacy, however, specifically when there is an incident involving a peace officer where the use of force results in substantial bodily harm of a private citizen, such as an officer-involved shooting. The catch, however, is that no footage is available for the public until after any and all investigations involving the data are complete.

Other exceptions to the privacy policy where the data is never public includes when the identity of an undercover officer is protected or when the contents are “clearly offensive to common sensibilities,” to which Mundale stated would include things such as nudity.

The storage is another obstacle that law enforcement agencies have to tackle when looking at implementing a body camera program. For the OPD, Mundale said this will be handled easily by using a “cloud” storage setup. The cloud — which Mundale said has been vetted by Criminal Justice Information Services and approved by the FBI — will automatically upload all the data that is recorded by the cameras.

The storage is part of what helped the OPD land on the Visual Labs software as their vendor for this program. Visual Labs is a software company that specializes in body camera programs through an app that can be downloaded on a cell phone device. The app also comes with the redaction software needed for instances where images or audio need to be removed. Both the officers that took part in the evaluation process and the information technology department recommended going with Visual Labs over the other two vendors, Axon and WatchGuard – both hardware companies.

“It was nice that it was a mutual agreement for both the administrative and the functionality side of the evaluation process,” Mundale said.

As far as the price of the body camera program, Mundale said that they are confident in the prices they’ve received. Because the Visual Labs software will require a cell phone device to be supplied to the officers, Mundale stated that the department will be able to remove the mobile phones in each police vehicle, saving the department roughly $3,800 a year. That money will go towards the implementation of the project.

“The council has already given the approval on some dollars for this program,” Mundale said. “We are a little above our budget expenditure, but Chief Hiller was able to find some areas to pick up that slack.”

In order to outfit the entire uniform patrol division with the body cameras, Mundale said that it will be roughly $28,000 to get started. After that, the cost of the software is $50 per phone per month, equally about $15,600 a year.

“This program will also allow these officers to have a digital cell phone and a voice recorder, merging a lot of technologies that we already provide into one,” Mundale added. During his presentation to the city council, Mundale also explained how the phones will serve as a GPS device to help locate officers who may need help or are in pursuit of a suspect.

“We want to be very careful and diligent on our decision so we involved a lot of input from the staff,” Mundale said. “We are also obligated by law to allow the public a way to provide input on this as well.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, the city council will hold a public hearing regarding the body worn camera program for the Owatonna Police Department. At that time the public can provide comments, opinions, and concerns.

Since announcing the implementation of the program on Oct. 31, however, Mundale said that he has received two emails from members of the Owatonna public that shows strong support for the program. One individual stated that are “all-in for anything that helps our police department keep our city and themselves safe” and that the addition of body cameras will improve the officers’ ability to do their jobs. The second individual stated that they support any budget increase necessary to make the implementation smooth and successful, and that the program will “only help enhance the department and help attract and retain high quality officers while improving public interactions and safety.”

The information on the body camera policy is posted on the Owatonna Police Department website. Questions, comments, and concerns can be directed to Capt. Jeff Mundale at jeffrey.mundale@ci.owatonna.mn.us.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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