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Come spring, city expects to launch body cam program

Some Woodbury police could be wearing body cameras as early as next spring, joining several other law enforcement departments moving to equip its force with worn cameras.

Officials unveiled plans to roll out its body camera pilot program Tuesday evening, with the goal of testing the camera technology on all Woodbury officers by 2018.

If the pilot program is successful, officials said they plan to ask the Woodbury City Council in June to approve the purchase of more cameras. Once that happens, the city would join several other law enforcement agencies across the state that are launching programs.

At about $10,000, the city plans to buy eight WatchGuard body cameras to test on different officers during the pilot phase. The cameras work together with the dashboard cameras inside Woodbury squad cars and automatically start filming if another officer's body camera is recording nearby.

Woodbury Police Chief Lee Vague said in September the total cost for the project would be an estimated $165,000, with a large part of the costs coming from storing and managing the data.

Overall, Woodbury officers have expressed support for the program, Vague said.

The Washington County Sheriff's office also announced it plans to roll out its body camera program Tuesday afternoon. That program could begin as early as January.

A draft of Woodbury's body camera policy said officers would be expected to turn on their cameras when they deem it necessary or in cases when a person becomes confrontational or demands to be filmed.

The department also plans to use camera footage for training.

State Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said a number of agencies, including Woodbury, were waiting for lawmakers to pass laws on body camera practices amid hot debates between lawmakers and advocates over privacy and transparency issues last session.

In May, Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law policies that made police footage nonpublic information, except in cases involving force or when an officer discharges a weapon. The footage in those instances would be made public after an investigation.

A person can also request footage if officers filmed or recorded them, but the footage would be blurred or removed if more than one person is filmed and doesn't agree to releasing the footage.

Still, some privacy-minded advocates have voiced sharp criticism of the new laws and policies agencies are beginning to deploy.

Ben Feist, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)-Minnesota's legislative director, said a number of body camera policies, including Woodbury's, seem to focus more heavily on evidence gathering for criminal prosecution rather than building public trust and establishing accountability for police officers.

"It feels a little bit like a bait and switch," he said. "The initial call — what everyone in the advocacy community could get behind — is the idea (that) body cameras could really show us what law enforcement is doing."

Among his other concerns with Woodbury's policy is the ability for officers to view camera footage for filing reports.

Advocacy groups believe officers will be able to draw heavily on visible actions instead of providing explanations leading to an arrest, use of force or when an officer is accused of misconduct.

"Not everything that's captured at that scene will be captured in the audio or video," Feist said. "If they can find out just how bad does something look or how they have to describe the situation, they could really tailor it to their own interests."

Following Tuesday's meeting, Vague said in an interview that he doesn't foresee many officers often needing to view their cameras' footage for filing reports because officers are accustomed to immediately writing reports.

"You have to be able to tell your story as to what happened, what you thought, what you heard, what you smelled. That's the right way to do it," Vague said, adding that a lot of officers won't have time to review video for most encounters.

In instances where an officer uses force, he said, the cameras help provide information to investigative agencies, such as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The city's police department is seeking feedback until Jan. 18, when the City Council meets and also hears public comments.

Comments can also be sent through email to police@woodburymn.gov.

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