After considering the technology for years, Elk River becomes latest agency to add them to their toolkit
by Jim Boyle
The Elk River Police Department has joined its peers across Sherburne County with its implementation of body-worn cameras.
Big Lake, Becker, Elk River and the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department now all have them in their law enforcement toolkit. The devices were added in Elk River on May 21 following a yearslong process of consideration, research and state guidance for implementation. They have been met with little public resistance. Elk River Police Chief Ron Nierenhausen said public support for them has swelled.
“When the public develops an expectation, law enforcement has to respond in some shape or form,” Nierenhausen said.
The new technology has been welcomed by police officers who clip them onto their uniforms before taking to the streets of Elk River. Nierenhausen said his department has been considering the technology, its costs and benefits since 2016 when some in his department attended an International Chief’s Association Conference in San Diego.
Departments in big cities like San Diego were adopting them at the time, and they were making it on the radar of countless other agencies across the nation and in Minnesota.
Here in Minnesota body cameras are now widely being used in the metro, but much less commonly in outstate Minnesota. They are catching on, though, as departments like Milaca are in the process of implementing them this summer.
Cost is a big reason the cameras have been slow to catch on across outstate Minnesota, as many agencies are embracing their use and others are willing but have not found the move to be financially viable.
Seven states now mandate the statewide use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement officers: Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Carolina. The body-camera laws in all those states except South Carolina were put in place within the last year or so.
Back in 2016, there were a lot of unknowns, Nierenhausen said.
“We monitored them and began having conversations about them with the city’s administration,” he said. “We looked at the pros and cons and went back and forth.”
As questions about the devices and their use got answered, and the technology improved, any warming to the idea of adding them to the force was tempered by cost.
“It was an expensive venture,” the chief said. “It would take a lot of staff time to get a system implemented and running.”
Nierenhausen assigned Capt. Darren McKernan to head up the department’s exploratory efforts. While he was looking into it, other departments, like the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department, were adding them.
City officials talked more significantly about body cameras with the council in the 2020 budgeting sessions but nothing came of them that year. The research continued.
The topic came up again in 2021 and a proposal to fund them was also created. The Elk River City Council approved them on a 5-0 vote. The city has signed a five-year lease with Axon, which covers the department’s body cameras and squad cameras.
“The entire system is tied to each other and will make for seamless cloud storage as well as retrieval of footage when needed,” Nierenhausen said.
The lease for the body and squad cameras is broken down each year with a cost per year of roughly $65,000. This does not include the renewal of a Taser lease, which the department will ask for in the next budget, the chief said.
Elk River officers, who have enjoyed being part of a progressive department, have welcomed the body cameras with open arms, Nierenhausen and McKernan said.
“It’s mind-blowing what this system can do,” Nierenhausen said.
Body cameras offshoot of squad cams that emerged 30 years ago
Squad cameras hit the scene in the 1990s.
Nierenhausen can remember thinking about their use and wondering if officers were going to run into the ditch. They never created such an issue, however.
“We found over the years they are really useful for so many reasons,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to go back and watch an incident and see what the particulars were, ... and the people who made complaints over the years and say they want to see the video and more often than not we have been able to show them what happened. The reality of what they remember in their head isn’t quite the same as what’s on the video.”
When the concept of police-worn cameras was starting to roll out, Elk River police took a seat at the table of the police convention for breakout sessions on the topic.
“We wanted to be as informed as we could be,” Nierenhausen said. “At that time, San Diego, a huge department, was rolling them out. It seems like we’re behind the eight ball, but we’re only four, five years behind them.”
McKernan said Elk River’s diligent yet methodical approach has netted a positive result. Not only is there more public support for them, the technology is also much more integrated than it ever has been, making for a more seamless implementation.
The system purchased by the Elk River Police Department is one large system that incorporates two different formats in body cameras and squad cameras.
Axon, the maker of the body cameras being used by the Elk River Police Department, used to be Tazer, the same firm that established itself as a provider of stun gun technology that has been embraced by law enforcement agencies.
The chief said the department is in the process of fine tuning its 2022 budget requests to the council, which will include a new Taser lease. Its previous lease expires at the end of this year and it needs council approval to be renewed. Those units would also tie into the body/squad camera system to provide an all-encompassing system.
“As far as ongoing costs, there really shouldn’t be any, as the lease includes everything,” Nierenhausen said.
The council earlier this week approved a change to a CSO position, adding evidence tech responsibilities to it. The position will be responsible for dealing with video requests in addition to other evidence distribution tasks.
Memorial Day chase underscored system’s versatility, abilities
The Elk River Police Department implemented use of body-worn cameras shortly before Memorial Day this year.
Local law enforcement agencies got involved in a chase after they spotted a suspect in a Minneapolis shooting driving along Highway 10 in Sherburne County. The suspect fired a gun at officers during the pursuit, which came to an end with a crash near the intersection of Proctor Avenue and Highway 10. A standoff ensued and ended with the person taking his own life, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which took the case from local law enforcement.
The incident provided an example of how police administration and supervisors could access live body camera footage from a computer or cellphone. McKernan went to the scene, but had he not been able to, he could have plugged in to gain perspectives on what was going on and provide any guidance that might have been warranted.
“It’s definitely a step forward,” McKernan said of having access to camera footage simultaneously and after the fact. “I did review the video (footage) afterward.”
Body cameras are another tool for officers to do their job.
“There’s a sense of security for officers,” McKernan said. “They know now they have additional footage of what’s going on and they don’t have to rely solely on what direction the squad car is parked (for squad camera footage).”
The chief and McKernan said the footage can be used for training younger officers.
“It’s a sense of security for them and a sense of security for us,” Nierenhausen said. “Now that we have the ability to go back.”
One-stop shop identified as a priority for ERPD
McKernan said department officials concluded they wanted a one-stop shop, meaning they wanted all of their systems to work together — from their fleet cameras and body cameras to fire arms and Tazers.
That led them to Axon.
McKernan said he spent nine months working with Axon to get a proposal ready for the chief to bring to the administration and council.
Once before the council, there was a public notification process to answer questions and deal with public concerns. The public was receptive and there was little criticism of the move.
Once that was done and full council approval was obtained, the Police Department waded through the implementation process amidst COVID-19 challenges to get the equipment ready for use and officers trained on how to use the new equipment.
That included training on use of the squad cameras, as a brand-new platform was introduced for that.
“It’s all internet based,” McKernan said. “We had been using another platform for 15 years, so now it’s a management piece to make sure information is accurately entered.”
Nierenhausen and McKernan say they have been pleased so far, which is not surprising.
“The reviews have been positive by all stretches of the imagination,” Nierenhausen said of the surge of law enforcement agencies moving in this direction. “I haven’t heard of any agency that has gone to a having body cameras that wished they hadn’t.”
“It is such a valuable tool for us for the day-in, day-out operations.”
Axon devices can be activated manually and automatically
Officers have the ability to turn their camera on, but there are also triggers that automatically turn the recording device on. That includes when an officer activates their squad lights and when an officer removes their gun from a holster.
“It’s designed to be fail safe,” McKernan said, “so it’s on when you need it on.”
Officers are also encourage to activate when having any contact with the public.
Officers are also able to take all of their crime scene photos and statements with iPhones and have them interface with Axon and be stored on a website specifically for evidence. Axon also simplifies redaction.
“It’s user friendly and handy,” McKernan said. “Dissemination of information with prosecutors and the county attorney’s office is much easier.”
The Elk River Police Department has not had to add any staff to process information. They did, however, add some duties to one of its community service officers. The Elk River City Council approved a bump in pay for this position and added some language to the officer’s job description.
The Minnesota Legislature has spelled out for cities and counties how to classify data, and the data on the body cameras is private unless it is proved to be public.
McKernan said it’s important they make sure the information obtained with the cameras is handled appropriately.
There are limited circumstances when recordings can be released to the public, and there are requirements for what must be maintained as private even if they can be released.
At one point, a full-time person might have been needed for the redaction aspects of archiving data.
“Redaction software makes it much easier,” Nierenhausen said. “We don’t have to add staff to manage this.”
Some data needs to be archived for 90 days and other data must be retained for a year depending on the nature of the video.
Requests to see the video must be vetted, and it’s not as simple as coming to the police station to see video taken at their neighbor’s residence after they have called in a complaint.
“We have to vet it,” Nierenhausen said. “If it fits within the parameters, ... we’ll release it.
“The key is it’s there. It exists. If it needs to be used as a reference point, it’s there. Before, we didn’t have that.”
The bulk of this data is used in court. Incidents involving use of force and discharge of a firearm must be kept for a longer period of time.
“It’s a level of transparency the public has become accustomed to,” McKernan said.
The cameras are also expected to have an impact on the public, one which Elk River officers believe will be positive.
“They now know they’re also on camera,” he said. “Hopefully it leads to better behavior.”
The captain said studies have shown use of force instances are reduced when people know they are being watched.
Nierenhausen said video recordings do also have their limitations, noting physical perception is way different from reality.
“Something can appear to a 2 feet away, but it’s actually 18 feet away,” he said. “Everything needs to be kept in perspective.”
Nierenhausen and McKernan believe they have gotten the cameras at a good time due to the technological advancements and growing public support for such devices being used in law enforcement.
“We have gone with a system that is pretty air tight,” Nierenhausen said.
And police work in Elk River can continue on as it has.
“Our officers know the standard and level of service they give to the community,” Nierenhausen said. “They know that’s not going to change just because there is a camera on.”
“We have nothing to hide,” he said. “We are very proud of how our officers conduct themselves in the public and how they handle situations. We take very few complaints on our staff.”