The Soldotna Police Department will soon have extra eyes on the ground with the introduction of body cameras for its officers.
In what he describes as getting ahead of the curve in terms of transparency, Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik said the department purchased 14 body cameras, each for $300-$400.
“I decided I could see… the trend of kind of what the public was expecting, although I don’t think the public is as demanding here,” Mlynarik said.
The entire purchase included docking stations for the cameras, data storage and other equipment, and amounted to approximately $9,700 Mlynarik said. The department will pay about $4,300 each year for continued use of a third-party server to store footage data.
Since Soldotna police officers are already used to working with audio records and video records from their vehicles, the training has focused on positioning the cameras and dealing with the footage, which is both audio and visual.
“It’s training actually how to use the camera, and then a big portion is how to download it into our system,” Mlynarik said. “There’s always a learning curve, but I think it’s going pretty good.”
The body cameras are “somewhat automated,” and Mlynarik said the ability to download them into the department’s system overnight using a docking station will cut down on the time officers have to spend on them.
Each camera is assigned to a specific officer and is programmed to recognize that officer’s account. Once the footage has been downloaded, officers can go back and add information, such as identification, into the system at a later time.
Sgt. Stace Escott had already been trained to use the new cameras, and said learning to use them isn’t much different than learning to use other devices.
“It’s just a tool for us,” he said. “We have many tools on our tool belt… and we’re already used to audio recording.”
The body cameras are a plus because, unlike the cameras in police vehicles, they can accompany officers into buildings and rooms for a more complete picture of an incident, Escott said.
“If someone’s being confrontational, that’s the goal I think and the push,” Escott said. “… It is going to capture some of those moments that were missing (before).”
One part of his training that took a little getting used to was actually attaching the camera to his person, he said. Placed too low, the faces in a video could be cut off. Placed too high, the entire bottom section of a shot could be lost, Escott said.
There will be slight differences between what the body cameras record and what can be seen by the human eye, Mlynarik said. The cameras have a wider view that could pick up something a person wouldn’t be able to see out of the corner of their eye, for example.
One area of possible concern when it comes to the cameras is the issue of privacy. Mlynarik said officers will not be able to record using the body cameras in places like bathrooms or locker rooms. They will have to be turned off in areas where “somebody would have an expectation of privacy,” Escott said.
“The first thing that we did before we started handing these out was create a policy,” Mlynarik said. “We understand that privacy is an issue.”
The Kenai Police Department has been trying out different models of body cameras for a few years, and got the majority of its cameras — about a dozen — this July, said Lt. David Ross.
The cameras are very similar to those used by the Soldotna Police Department, but come with different mounts for body placement, Ross said.
“Ours are more collar or glasses mounts,” he said. “We have had positive feedback as far as their use from officers, and we feel like they provide some transparency and promote professionalism.”
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