Two recent fatal shootings of suspects by police officers in Alaska's largest city have increased public attention on the department's equipment and policy, and soon new means of gathering evidence will arrive. Video surveillance cameras for Anchorage patrol officers are on the way, although when they'll arrive is still in question.
The Alaska Legislature appropriated $4 million to fund the project, which would equip the department's 200 patrol officers with cameras in their vehicles.
Currently, only 16 traffic officers have them. Anchorage Police Department spokesman Lt. Dave Parker said the project to expand the use of cameras is currently at the “RFP” (request for proposals) stage, during which the municipality takes bids on the project. It's unclear exactly when the process will finish and when cameras will be purchased.
Community members posed questions to city officials in a Thursday night town hall meeting regarding the use of deadly force on Shane Tasi. The 26-year-old Mountain View man was fatally shot by Officer Boaz Gionson June 9 after he approached the officer brandishing a 39-inch long broom handle.
At the meeting some wondered why there was no police surveillance footage of the incident. All video of the incident -- an edited version of which was released to the public -- came from an apartment building security camera.
Opponents of video surveillance consider it to be intrusive while others say having cameras is vital to boosting public confidence by holding law enforcement officers accountable.
Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew said at the meeting the reason cameras have been so slow in coming is that the department wanted to install the cameras in all 200 patrol cars. To do that would require a robust data system capable of storing the information. The system will be modern, he added, and could even include cameras on police officers themselves.
The department is also in the process of equipping all patrol officers with Tasers. Gionson, the first officer to respond to the scene, was not carrying the electroshock device when Tasi was shot. While the less-than-lethal weapon wouldn't have been applied in the June 9 incident -- since less-than-lethal force must always be backed up by lethal force -- public outcry over why a Taser wasn't deployed was fierce. About 35 percent of some 350 sworn APD officers carry a Taser. Among the 200 patrol officers, 116 are equipped with the weapon. Mew said in the past department officials were unsure whether Tasers were effective and whether public opinion and the courts would support a full deployment. The department later said it would made equipping all officers a priority.
About 43 percent of all law enforcement agencies worldwide have “full deployments,” where each officer is equipped with a Taser. Many Alaska agencies, including the Fairbanks and Juneau police departments have full Taser deployments. The 545 uniformed personnel of the Alaska Department of Public Safety -- which includes state troopers, wildlife troopers, village public safety officers and court services officers -- all carry Tasers.
According to police, 36 X26-model Tasers are being purchased with a $47,000 state appropriation. Parker did not know when the Tasers would arrive.
Officer shootings lead to cameras
In 2010, two Anchorage police officers -- Jean Mills and Jason Allen -- were shot within months of each other. Neither officer was equipped with a video camera. While police were able to determine the shooter in Mills' case, Allen's case remains open to this day.
Following the shootings, the department made it a top priority to equip officers with video cameras. Parker said that in both instances video footage would have made it easier to identify suspects.
While the cameras themselves are not expensive, a data storage system is. Parker couldn't speak to the exact cost, since the bidding process is still open, but he said it was significant.
However, changes in technology have made implementing a system more realistic. He said the department used to record DUI arrests on video tape, but storage of the large, clunky VHS tapes was always an issue.
Digital storage has improved greatly, but APD will still have to buy multiple terabytes (1,000 gigabytes each), of storage to keep video data.
Parker said the department is working to write a camera policy now, which will include such things as how long to store footage and when the cameras should start rolling.
"The district attorney will have to weigh in on 'which images do you keep and which do you not keep?',” Parker said.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch