The Department of Public Safety released a draft policy this week that details how Alaska State Troopers and other state law enforcement officers will use body cameras.
The department plans to launch a pilot program in the spring and roll out the full program by the end of the year, outfitting troopers, village public safety officers, court services officers and deputy fire marshals, officials said.
In the meantime, Alaska’s other large law enforcement agency, the Anchorage Police Department, has no set date for putting cameras into action despite growing public pressure to do so. The department has been working to equip officers with the technology for nearly two years, after voters approved a $1.8 million annual tax increase to fund the project and update record management and dispatch systems.
While there are rough estimates for when the department now plans to select a vendor to supply the equipment for body cameras and finalize the policy, it’s still unclear when officers will be equipped with the devices.
Many police departments around the country have turned to body cameras as a tool to help increase public trust and improve transparency and accountability. The technology has become a national focus in recent years as protests against police brutality mounted in the wake of Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd in 2020.
More recently, Memphis police last week released body camera footage that showed officers beating 29-year-old Tyre Nichols and sparked outrage across the nation. He died in the hospital three days later. The five officers involved were fired and have been indicted on murder charges.
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Body cameras are commonplace in a majority of large police departments across the country. In Alaska, a number of law enforcement agencies, including police departments in Juneau and Fairbanks, have been using the technology for years.
Now the public is getting its first look at the state’s plans to outfit troopers and other law enforcement officers.
DPS policy open for comment
The draft Department of Public Safety policy outlines the parameters for use of the cameras, including how the agency plans to handle sharing footage with the public.
The policy was released Wednesday and will be open for comment from Feb. 8 until March 1. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to the department at 5700 E. Tudor Road in Anchorage.
In a statement, the department said the policy was modeled off national best practices. A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said the organization has not yet had time to analyze the draft state policy.
As proposed, the policy allows for the public release of camera footage in critical incidents, like officer-involved shootings, after initial interviews have been completed with involved parties. Officials could release such footage proactively, without a public records request. Footage will otherwise be available to the public only through a records request after the investigation or court proceedings have concluded.
The draft policy states that officers should “begin recording as soon as practical” during interactions with the public, including during traffic enforcement, citizen complaints, arrests and other situations where it may be beneficial to have a recording. If an officer fails to record an incident or has a technology malfunction, they would be expected to document why they didn’t make a recording. Officers could be disciplined or have to undergo additional training if a supervisor noted they were repeatedly not using the cameras.
The policy does not allow for officers involved in shootings or use-of-force situations to review footage before they undergo a formal interview.
The department plans to deploy 30 body cameras to troopers or wildlife troopers in the Interior, Mat-Su and on the Kenai Peninsula during the pilot program this spring, agency spokesman Austin McDaniel said. Plans for the final rollout will be informed by the pilot program, he said.
The draft policy also outlines several functions of wearing cameras: enhancing officer safety; preserving information for investigations or court testimony; assisting with officer evaluations and probable cause review for arrests; and enhancing “the public’s trust by accurate representations of officer-public interactions in the form of video and audio recordings.”
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The Department of Public Safety initially planned to release a draft policy in December and fully outfit more than 400 employees with body cameras by summer. Those plans were delayed by “significant” edits to the policy last month regarding the camera model, McDaniel said.
The department purchased 600 Motorola V300 body cameras, along with necessary software and accessories, in November for just under $3 million. The department has the cameras needed for the pilot program, but expects the rest of them to arrive this summer, McDaniel said.
The department received roughly $3.5 million from the Legislature and was awarded nearly $1 million in matching federal grant funds for the program.
The program will have ongoing costs, including for storage, that will be better estimated as the program gets underway, Commissioner James Cockrell has said. Body camera footage will have implications for the court system because it will increase the amount of evidence available to prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The department is also working to address challenges that could arise for rural officers, who may not have access to reliable internet service needed to back up footage to the cloud storage system, McDaniel said.
APD body cameras overdue
Anchorage voters approved a $1.8 million tax increase in April 2021 with the understanding that the Anchorage Police Department planned to have officers wearing body cameras by the end of that year. Funding was also allotted for upgrades to the department’s record management and computer-aided dispatch systems.
Now, nearly two years later, the department still has several major hurdles to overcome before body cameras can be put into use in Anchorage — including purchasing the equipment and finalizing a policy for use.
The Anchorage Police Department has come under fire over the past year for the long-standing delays in outfitting officers and officials’ refusal to provide a timeline for the project.
Police have collected $3 million in taxes, which has been used to upgrade the dispatch and record management systems. Those upgrades were critical and had to be done before body cameras were implemented because the old systems were failing, APD spokeswoman Renee Oistad said. The projects, however, are not dependent on one another for completion.
Police have spent more than $700,000 so far on those upgrades, which APD spokeswoman Sunny Guerin said are expected to be fully implemented by the first quarter of next year. The department signed a $4.4 million contract with the software company that will cover implementation, maintenance and support services for five years.
The Anchorage Police Department plans to collect the full $1.8 million in taxes this year, Guerin said. The department also received an additional $890,000 in federal funds to go toward body camera implementation.
Chief Michael Kerle said during a municipal public safety committee meeting Wednesday that the department aims to select a vendor to supply the equipment by the end of March. APD is considering three vendors that submitted proposals for the project. Officials will meet with the vendors and see a demonstration this month or in early March, Kerle said.
It’s unclear how long it will be until the department finalizes a contract with the chosen vendor, he said.
Police officials published their last draft of the policy for use in March of 2022, but progress has since come to a standstill due to disagreements with the union representing officers over the policy, which is subject to collective bargaining because it represents a change in working conditions. Union officials have taken issue with a section of the policy that does not allow officers to review footage before being interviewed in use-of-force situations.
The department and the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association are expected to enter into arbitration in April. Police officials on Wednesday said they are continuing discussions with the union to try to resolve the issues without arbitration, but they otherwise hope to have a decision back from the arbitrator by late fall.
The draft APD body camera policy has been met with criticism over sections about release of footage and because the policy does not include information about disciplinary measures to be taken if officers are found to be not using the cameras consistently. The Anchorage Police Department will not automatically release footage of police shootings or use-of-force incidents. The footage can only be obtained through a municipal public records request — a lengthy and expensive process.
It remains unclear when the entire force will be outfitted. Kerle has previously said he intends to roll out the program on a limited basis, possibly with only five or six officers wearing body cameras each shift.