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Body of evidence: St. Croix County poised for camera launch as legislation gets fresh look

Deputies will either carry body cameras vertically or horizontally, depending on preference. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
A red button on the side of the St. Croix County body cameras is what deputies will push to begin recording incidents. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

The St. Croix County Sheriff's Office will be drawing from other agencies' experiences while minding potential legislative changes as it prepares to launch its body camera program later this year.

The cameras — beefed-up smartphones, actually — will be issued to the department's patrol deputies, jail staff and investigators later this summer, St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson said. The $230,000 program comes as state lawmakers revisit body-camera legislation that will likely be resurrected after crumbling in 2017.

St. Croix County will join an expanding list of agencies outfitting officers with body-worn cameras — accessories that lend clarity to officer interactions, if only from a limited perspective.

Public defense attorney Alex Andrea who practices in St. Croix County said body camera recordings shed more light on he-said, she-said scenarios that might otherwise be a struggle to sort out in court.

"I view it as an aid, it's an aid for truth," he said. "It's a safeguard for both sides."

But not always.

St. Croix County District Attorney Michael Nieskes said that while body cameras can be effective tools for prosecutors, that doesn't mean they automatically turn arguments into slam dunks. The cameras only record what's directly in front of officers, so when action takes place off camera, it can come back to one person's word against the other's.

"They don't always capture something that's happening in the periphery," Nieskes said.

And, depending on many factors, they might not be recording at all. Departmental policies, battery life, technological snafus and heat-of-the-moment decisions can all impact whether body cameras are rolling.

St. Croix County sheriff's administrators were in the late stages of completing policies for body cameras last week, but said they are keenly aware of high-profile incidents that have raised concerns.

"We're always analyzing what's happening in other agencies," Special Services Lt. Brent Standaert said

He said the Minneapolis police shooting death of Justine Damond has put a heightened emphasis on when officers should begin recording incidents — a recording of the 2017 Minneapolis incident didn't begin until after Damond was shot by an officer — but joined his colleagues in saying a one-size-fits-all recording policy isn't practical.

The St. Croix County policy will call for recordings of all calls for service, or if a non-enforcement contact is about to turn adversarial.

"Then the camera comes on," Standaert said.

That's similar to the policy at the Washington County County Sheriff's Office, the Minnesota agency Knudson said was helpful in passing along suggestions, including how to secure the cameras to officers' uniforms.

Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said his department has been using body cameras since February 2017.

"For us, it's been a success," he said. "I don't think I would go back to not having them."

Pierce County, which had issued body cameras to nearly all 21 patrol deputies as of December 2017, has a similar usage policy. There, department policy calls for deputies to make "every effort" to record enforcement contacts.

"Recording such contacts shall be the rule and not the exception," the Pierce County policy states.

But what happens at local agencies in Wisconsin could be reshaped by the Legislature.

Shaping legislation

A bill mandating state policies for body-camera use failed in the 2017 Wisconsin legislative session, but those close to it say another version is likely to return.

In shelving the bill, lawmakers sought to have the issue studied. That effort became the Legislative Council Study Committee on the Use of Police Body Cameras, headed by four legislators and six others, including law enforcement leaders, lawyers and media representatives.

One of those public members is St. Croix County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jeff Klatt. He said he wants to ensure legislation takes into account what happens when an officer wearing a body camera enters a private home.

Those recordings become a part of the record, which, at some point, becomes public data. But Klatt said he fears public records requests could fall into the hands of "bad guys able to look into somebody's castle."

That concern resonates with Rep. Rob Stafsholt.

"We need to ensure no one's civil liberties are encroached on, nobody's privacies are encroached on," the New Richmond Republican said.

Still, Klatt said there needs to be fewer limitations than previously sought.

The 2017 bill required every person pictured in a body camera video in a private setting to sign off before it could be released through an open records request.

"That may have gone a little too far," Klatt said of the legislation.

Fellow legislative council member James Friedman agreed with him on that provision.

Friedman, a Wisconsin Newspaper Association attorney, said that language left open records requests "up to the whim of everyone captured on video." He argues no new legislative language needs to be drafted for body camera recordings — that the state's existing open record laws should govern that.

And then there's the matter of when the cameras start rolling.

Knudson said he's not comfortable with efforts at the Capitol requiring officers to record every minute of their shift.

"I don't know if that's practical," he said.

Things like battery life and storage capacity, the sheriff said, would become immediate concerns under such a policy.

Rather, beginning the recording when officers arrive at scenes makes sense, Knudson said.

He said there's little value in having a deputy begin recording a call that requires the officer to travel from the sheriff's office in Hudson to the town of Cady, for example. That's about a half hour of windshield time consuming battery juice and storage that could otherwise be used recording an active interaction with a suspect, Knudson said.

"There's lots of factors we need to talk through," he said. "There will be no perfect answers."

While Stafsholt said he's not given pause by the interactions of law enforcement in his district and members of the public, he knows accountability is a big concern. So long as law enforcement supports body cameras, "I welcome it."

Nieskes said he's also watching legislative efforts and hopes for a body camera law that not only requires a uniform data-storage system for law enforcement, but also requires agencies to have policies governing the release of the recordings.

Knudson said the sheriff's office is still formulating record-retention policy, but will likely begin by holding body camera recordings for the standard 121 days from enforcement.

As for redaction of videos that depict sensitive images, such as juveniles, medical information or nudity, Knudson said those could be blurred out through software. He's planning to handle those on a case-by-case basis.

"It will be a balancing act on each of these open records" requests, he said.

Sen. Patty Schachtner said best practices in body camera policy, like any other effort, will evolve over time. Still, the Somerset Democrat said "anything, to me, that verifies the situation is a good thing."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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