Government

Cedar Rapids police body camera program gears up

City clarifying rules for when the cameras must be on

Body cameras for the Cedar Rapids Police Department are docked May 16 in a cradle that both charges and downloads video when officers are off-duty. The department has purchased 156 of the cameras and outfitted its uniformed officers. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Body cameras for the Cedar Rapids Police Department are docked May 16 in a cradle that both charges and downloads video when officers are off-duty. The department has purchased 156 of the cameras and outfitted its uniformed officers. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — After nearly two years of planning, research and testing, every uniformed officer in the Cedar Rapids Police Department has been outfitted with a body-worn camera and trained how to use it.

The project, which began nearly two years ago as a pilot program with a few officers, has grown into one that involves all uniformed officers and integrates the department’s entire video tool kit — from interview room cameras to squad car dashboard cameras to body cameras.

Those first five cameras were assigned to the Police Community Action Team officers who have the most frequent interactions with the public, said Sgt. Jeremy Paulsen, who was involved in the research and procurement of the body cameras.

“In July of 2018 we ordered an additional 110 cameras and that’s when we actually started our full deployment of the devices and started getting our officers trained,” Paulsen said. “And in February, we got an additional 35 cameras, bringing our total up to 150 devices, and that essentially covers all our uniformed officers and supervisors.”

An additional six cameras, he said, were purchased as spares in case one of the cameras breaks or malfunctions.

WHEN TO RECORD

According to department policy, officers are required to activate their cameras for all public contacts regardless of the types of contact — during traffic stops, when responding to calls for service and when in residences or other privately owned areas as long as there is a lawful reason for the presence of law enforcement officers.

But there are some exceptions, according to the policy. They include communications with other officers, encounters with undercover officers or confidential police informers, while inside medical facilities, in restrooms or locker rooms and when engaged in personal activities.

Paulsen said the department already is in the process of revamping its camera policies.

“We’re actually working to update that directive so that it lists more specifically the types of interactions where body cameras should be operating, because basically right now, it says all citizen interactions,” he said. “That’s in the works and will include more details on what needs to be recorded. We just want it to be very clear — if you have a call for service, you turn your camera on. You have an interaction related to any law enforcement action, turn your cameras on.”

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The department also plans to add directives, he said, to specifically address usage for school resource officers — those stationed in schools.

OFFICER RESPONSE

Officer Randy Vest, one of the training officers involved in the roll out, said officer response was mixed at first.

“Initially there was the usual grumbling and questions as to why we needed the cameras,” he said. “But that was just the normal aversion to change that it always present.”

Now that the officers have had some time to adjust, Vest said he hasn’t heard complaints.

“I think their thought process has changed about the devices,” he said. “The biggest concern for the officers was initially the camera size, but we already wear roughly 25 pounds of gear, so an extra 7 ounces from the camera isn’t going to make much of a difference.”

Additionally, Vest said he believes officers recognize the cameras are as valuable to them as they can be to the public.

“For us the cameras come with all kinds benefits,” he said. “They are not only helpful in documenting interactions, but they can also be used to document evidence or record witness statements. Plus, the cameras serve as another form of back up for us — should someone file a complaint against one of our officers, the body camera footage can help prove or disprove the accusations.”

The roll out of body cameras to forces across the nation has often raised questions of privacy and public review.

The police department said body camera video will be subject to the same open record request laws as in-car footage and police records.

As a case from Burlington illustrates, such access can be hard — if not impossible — for the public to obtain.

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In 2015, a Burlington police officer shot and killed a woman as he was responding to a call at her home. An investigation determined the shooting was an accident — he slipped on the ice as the woman’s dog was attacking him — but the family nonetheless won a $2 million wrongful-death settlement.

The Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation appealed a decision by an administrative law judge that authorities must release body camera video of the episode. In the face of an appeal, the state’s public records board dropped the case.

THE MONEY

Each camera for the Cedar Rapids force, Paulsen said, cost $915, not including the mounts and charging bases.

According to Paulsen, the city received federal grants covering about $122,000 of the cost and the city covered the remaining roughly $20,000.

The city also spent a little more than $102,200 on two redundant servers to store video files from the body cameras, in-car cameras and interview room cameras.

Paulsen said the department likely will buy another 35 cameras as a pool for “officers who work uniform jobs, but not on a regular basis."

THE TECHNOLOGY

One of the reasons the department chose to buy these particular cameras — Panasonic Arbitrator MK3s — is their compatibility with the rest of its video equipment.

“Our body-worn cameras and in-car cameras sync up and they activate each other,” Paulsen said. "That’s great because if you turn on your emergency lights, the in-car cameras automatically turn on, which means the body camera automatically turns on as well, which is good because if you are responding to a high-stress situation, you won’t have to think about remembering to turn on your body camera.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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