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Providing transparency: Boulder County law enforcement agencies spend thousands for body-worn camera

Before taking off for her day shift, Samantha Calvetti makes sure the battery in her body-worn camera is fully charged and that it is activated prior to leaving the parking lot at Longmont Police Department.

The small black camera pinned to the center of Calvetti’s chest goes everywhere she does and records every interaction she has. At first, it was difficult to remember to activate it at the beginning of every shift, but now it’s part of her everyday routine.

“At first I think I was a little nervous just because it’s new, but almost immediately I was like, ‘This is great,'” she said. “They’re a great tool for investigations for court purposes. I think a lot of people who are visual learners like to see what’s happening. For court, when an intoxicated party literally spills out of the car you can show that and (say), ‘Look at this person.'”

Calvetti said using a body-worn camera while making traffic stops has simplified her process.

“If you are interviewing somebody, you can take as many notes as you can, but then when you go back and listen, you can get exactly word for word what they have to say,” she said

Two years ago, the Longmont Public Safety Department shelled out $280,000 to purchase body-worn cameras for officers in the department. In addition to the initial costs, the department also spends $189,000 annually for data storage, said Longmont Deputy Chief Jeff Satur.

Prior to having the cameras, Satur said some officers would record incidents with their phones. From there, they downloaded the video to a CD and followed the state’s video storage protocol to ensure it was saved for an adequate amount of time to meet the department’s retention policy, or time departments hold onto videos. Now thanks to the body camera, the process is effortless.

“When you have officers get back to the police department at the end of their shift or during their shift or if they happen to go to city hall, it automatically downloads what’s on the camera,” he said. “It’s really not a second thought for anybody.”

Longmont’s Police Department is just one of many law enforcement agencies in Boulder County and along the Front Range that has taken steps in recent years to equip its officers with body-worn cameras.

Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 20-217, known as the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Bill, in 2020, requiring all Colorado agencies implement body-worn cameras by July 1, 2023.

In recent years, the use of body-worn cameras in law enforcement agencies garnered national attention after the trial of George Floyd’s accused murder. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died following his arrest when he was pinned beneath three Minneapolis police officers for several minutes. Regional cases include that of Darsean Kelley, who was shown on body camera footage being shocked with an electric stun gun by an Aurora officer.

The footage from body-worn cameras has been used to prosecute law enforcement for any wrongdoings, but also has many positive uses for law enforcement and has helped exonerate officers like Longmont Police Officer Luke Wiley.

“Having them is a huge resource, and it protects officers from false allegations,” Wiley said. “I’ve been cleared, several times, from false complaints. People complain, saying, ‘He did this and he did that and he didn’t explain that’ and then we’ll watch the video, and it’s like, ‘No, he did nothing wrong.’ So it’s peace of mind for us as well as the public. If we’re doing something wrong, it’s going to capture it.”

Keeping up with the demand

The Lafayette Police Department purchased its body-worn cameras earlier this year, said Deputy Police Chief Brian Rosipajla.

The department agreed to a five-year contract with Axon, which will cost $658,146.

“(Our) authorized strength is 45, so we have one for every officer purchased and two spares,” he said. “The cameras are assigned to individual officers.”

In addition to the cameras, the department also hired a digital analyst, who started working with the department March 29. The employee will be in charge of redacting private information from the body camera footage, such as a license plate or if a child is shown on camera. The new employee will earn $90,254 annually.

Senate Bill 20-217 allows that videos of victims of sexual assault, children or people in a mental health crisis not be released publicly without consent of the victim. Treatment facilities, homes and victims’ names also can be blurred.

Lafayette Police Department’s minimum retention policy for footage such as trainings or test footage is three years, but has an indefinite retention rate when there is use of force, an officer-involved injury, notice of a complaint or lawsuit.

“We went with best practices on all of this,” Rosipajla said. “(For) any use of force, it will be reviewed by a supervisor. Axon has software where the system does random picks of the videos that the supervisors have to review.”

Rosipajla said it is important for the public to understand how body-worn cameras work as more law enforcement agencies across the state begin to acquire them to meet the state mandate.

“One of the biggest components is educating the public on what body-worn cameras do and don’t do,” he said. “A lot of people just think that you have a body camera and it shows everything — it captures everything — which is not reality.”

A double-edged sword

Prior to using body-worn cameras, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office relied on car cameras. In 2016, it began working with body cameras and is in the process of replacing the current system, said Sheriff Joe Pelle.

“We are looking at about 250 cameras and (spending) $1.5 million,” he said. “The cameras are the cheap part, and the expensive part is storing the data and being able to search and retrieve and redact data for public records requests.”

Pelle said the cameras have been used many times to exonerate deputies, but they can also be used to charge them.

“We have two ex-deputies that are facing criminal charges for the death of a person they were transporting to detox,” he said. “The body camera was critical evidence.”

He said there is also a downside to using the cameras and feels the language of the new Senate bill that requires officers to “activate a body-worn camera when responding to a call for service or during any interaction with the public” presumes officers are up to no good. According to the bill, if an officer forgets to turn on a camera they could face disciplinary action and even criminal and civil charges.

“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “Just imagine wearing a camera all day that records everything you do.”

Assistant District Attorney Kenneth Kupfner agreed there are pros and cons to using body-worn cameras, which have become part of all his investigations in the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office.

When a jury learns there is video footage of an incident, he said it raises their expectations. They expect the video to simplify the trial.

“When you tell them there is a video, they think it will be HD quality from multiple angles,” he said. “Having tried officers’ cases where individuals have assaulted officers, I have experienced (a) jury struggling with the fact that it’s on video, but the camera is not facing exactly the right spot to catch everything.”

But having body camera footage while prosecuting a case is a major advantage as well, Kupfner said.

“We have had cases we were able to prosecute because of interview statements that were on the body-worn camera,” he said. “In the past, prior to officers all equipping with body-worn camera, those initial statements were not captured the same way. They can be incredible evidence to be able to actually see someone during their initial stages when the officer makes a contact.”

Kupfner said using body camera footage has significantly increased the time he spends reviewing and working on a case.

“You can end up with dozens of body-worn camera videos,” he said. “It has certainly added a level of challenge of being able to go through all the evidence in the case.”

A price to pay

The Boulder Police Department implemented body-worn cameras as well as in-car cameras in 2014, Police Chief Maris Herold wrote in an email.

She said the department has about 206 body-worn cameras and 51 cameras installed in patrol and traffic vehicles.

For her, the pros of using body-worn cameras include their durability and how easy they are to use and upload, she wrote.

She said the con is that it could be knocked off a person easily.

About four years ago, the Louisville Police Department purchased about 40 body-worn cameras, said Police Chief Dave Hayes.

Hayes said he thinks the next camera purchase will be in-car cameras like what Boulder’s police department uses.

“In a bigger department they have had complaints where there is misconduct in the car,” he said. “Those in-car videos will help provide some transparency to that and some protection.

“It is not required yet in Colorado,” he said. “It’s something we are trying to get a little ahead of the curve.”

Hayes said the city initially spent $73,913 for a three-year agreement in 2016, but then changed body camera vendors and paid $401,400 to Utility Inc.

“We were fortunate pre-COVID that Council supported them, and we knew (the mandate) was coming,” he said. “I think the selling point for the community has been, ‘Well then, officers will behave better,’ and that certainly wasn’t why we got them. We get very few complaints, and if anything it provides transparency and shows that our men and women are doing a good job.”

For agencies that haven’t purchased cameras yet or for cities with less funding to purchase the costly equipment, the state implemented the body-worn camera grant program, which helps departments pay to implement the devices. The Colorado House and Senate recently voted to add $1 million to the program.

“I think anything would help,” Hayes said. “It’s to help cities and towns, but it’s not to pay the full costs. We are paying for it all for seven years, but after seven years it starts all over again.”

The lack of funding to implement the state-mandated devices was a red flag for Wiley when the bill passed, he said. Body cameras for both the public and law enforcement are a great tool, but there needs to be more funding, he said.

“I came from a small department, and they don’t have the budget,” he said. “I am hoping the state can come up with some funding because I know they are not going to be able to do it on their own.”

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