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Duluth police debut body-mounted cameras

Duluth police officer Shanda Braun, who wears one of the new body cameras, presses the on button to begin recording on Thursday. (Bob King / / 3
Duluth police officer Shanda Braun clips on her body camera at the Law Enforcement Center in Duluth on Thursday morning. The new cameras, which can record up to 9½ hours of video, will be worn by the department's uniformed officers. (Bob King / / 3

Duluth police officer Shanda Braun admits she was a little apprehensive when she agreed to be one of the first half-dozen cops to test the department’s new body-mounted cameras.

The camera is small and mounts to her upper body, but Braun said she wasn’t quite sure how she — and the public — would adjust to the new technology.

“I was curious, a little nervous — it’s change,” she said. “But it’s been very beneficial.”

The body-camera program, something the department has been exploring for more than three years, was officially rolled out Thursday. The department recently purchased 97 Taser Axon body cameras, enough for every uniformed officer, at the cost of about $300 per unit.

Now, when officers are working in the field, they will be expected to record nearly all incident responses and interactions with suspects and witnesses.

Sgt. Jayme Carlson, who was in charge of the program’s implementation, said the goal is to add a layer of accountability for suspects and officers alike. He said the department expects the widespread use of body-mounted cameras to cut down on public complaints and use of force incidents.

“When people on the street know that they’re being recorded, they tend to be less violent towards police officers. It creates better self-awareness for them,” he said. “It definitely adds accountability to the officers, too.”

The cameras are capable of recording about 9½ hours of footage and have a battery life of 12 hours, Carlson said. That’s enough storage and battery life to allow officers to record all of their public interactions during the course of a shift. The cameras are built to be durable, able to withstand the elements and officers’ everyday working conditions.

The department had $80,000 in this year’s budget to purchase all the necessary equipment and get the program off the ground, Police Chief Gordon Ramsay told the News Tribune in October. Officials say that money will be easily recouped in the long run.

“Right now, it seems like a decent cost up front, but on the back end of it, we’re looking at reducing prosecutors’ time in court, saving on time investigating complaints, saving on time investigating actual incidents,” Carlson said. “Everything’s on camera.”

While other Minnesota agencies, including police departments in Proctor, Gilbert and Burnsville, Minn., have implemented or experimented with body cameras, Duluth is perhaps the largest department in the state to widely use the technology.

Even advocacy groups that typically have opposed government surveillance programs have endorsed the use of body cameras. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, called the cameras “a check against the abuse of power by police officers.”

For many years, the department has had all squad cars equipped with dash cam video systems, which will remain. The added benefit of body cameras, officers said, is that they can be worn anywhere and provide much better footage of anything from a traffic stop to a domestic disturbance.

The cameras capture a wide-angle, 75-degree field of vision, according to a Taser fact sheet. To conserve storage space, the cameras do not shoot in high-definition, but rather 480p standard definition.

Officers will wear the cameras at all times, but they won’t film at all times, Carlson said. To activate the camera, they must push a large button on the front of the device. At the end of a shift, officers place their cameras in a docking station, which automatically uploads the video into a cloud storage system.

The video is easily accessible later, and can be used by the department to review complaints or be turned over to prosecutors as evidence. Carlson said the department administration will not be using the footage to randomly check in on officers.

Braun, who has been testing out the cameras since mid-May, said she had a small learning curve to overcome. But she expected that most officers will be able to quickly adapt and make cameras a part of everyday police work.

“Remembering to go up there and turn it on is the hardest thing,” Braun said. “It’s also heavier. But you get used to it. Once it’s there, I forget it’s there.”