Body cameras

Officer Braulio Jerez’s body camera on Halloween at the fire department, one year into Aspen police’s adoption of the devices. 

Halloween marked the one-year anniversary of Aspen Police Department fully using body cameras in everyday police work.

“We issued them for the first time for Halloween last year,” Aspen Police Assistant Chief Bill Linn explained. “Because of the kind of night that Halloween is, we thought, ‘Well, we might as well get them out there.’”

Since then, a lot has changed. The district attorney’s office in the Pitkin County Courthouse bought a new server to store the influx of footage; it’s transitioning to a third-party cloud-based option in the near future. APD contracted with a third-party vendor for server space from the outset, and patrol officer Dan Davis spends much of his time these days managing video footage from the body cameras.

“Right now, I’m kind of the only person looking at when we have videos that come up for deletion [because] they’ve met their retention periods,” Davis said, noting that APD generally uses statute of limitations laws as guidelines for retention periods. “I go through those, and I’ve told Bill and [Assistant Chief] Linda [Consuegra], this could be a full-time job.”

And in the near future, it will be. APD is actively hiring a records and evidence custodian, for which Chief Richard Pryor highlighted an $81,860 supplemental budget request when presenting to Aspen City Council on Oct. 7.

“It’s a records position, and of course, these are records, so they’ll be managing those and a lot of our other digital evidence,” Linn said of the body camera footage. “There are agencies that actually have got the camera system and then got rid of it because the management of it was just too much. Not just the management of it, but also the management of it for filling requests — [Freedom of Information Act] requests or requests from the public for copies of videos.”

That, too, will fall under the responsibilities of the new records custodian. Although body camera footage is public record just like any other police report, there are occasions when redactions are necessary for privacy and sensitivity reasons — just like with any other police report.

“You’re taking videos in people’s houses and things like that. We will be very thoughtful about whether we’re actually giving those videos out or in what context we give them out,” Linn said.

As for Davis, once that position is filled, he’ll be back in the field.

“It just puts me right back into patrol and focusing more on that kind of stuff,” he said. “I love doing this, though. This was my baby six years ago.”

Davis came to Aspen from a three-person department in Ohio, where he often worked alone. He found having a camera on his vehicle invaluable and began lobbying for APD to demo body cameras when he arrived. Years later, the department fully adopted the practice on Halloween of 2018.

“We had in-car cameras, and that was my only witness,” he said. “You’d run into cases where people make accusations, and if it’s just you, it’s just your word against them. I’ve always loved having that video backup.”

Indeed, the body cameras offer a two-way transparency — not to mention the evidentiary benefits, he continued.

“I’m not Ernest Hemingway; we’ve gotta write a report, and we try to paint that picture, and sometimes that’s difficult,” he said. “Or you try to explain how upset a victim is in a crime, well here, watch this and see it. It just provides a much more compelling picture and an overall better idea of actually what took place during a call.”

These days, many jurors expect body camera footage as evidence, Linn said.

“A video, a jury can relate to in a way that us expressing it from the witness stand just doesn’t get the whole thing across,” he said. “Not that the video expresses the whole story, either. It’s real important for people to understand that that video does not express the emotions of either people involved in the video. It doesn’t express the things that are seen outside of that viewscreen that may change how a scenario is being perceived.”

Davis, too, acknowledged the limitations of the body cameras.

“It’s not the end all. When we first started this, I was wearing the glasses camera, which sees the direction I see,” he added. “It doesn’t always see what I see, and I don’t always see what it sees. The body camera points a certain degree of direction, and if it’s filming this way, and something catches my attention over here, that’s obviously not on camera.”

That said, having body cameras is certainly preferable to not having body cameras, at least in Davis’ mind.

“If you don’t have it, you can lose a case because of that. For me, I feel like that’s not fair justice to victims, just because there’s not a video. When you think about it, across the country, most agencies are really small. We’re lucky that we have funding for it; other agencies don’t,” he said.

His colleagues at APD seem to agree — in an internal audit, 17 of 22 officer respondents (APD employs 27 officers) reported that they found having a body camera either very or somewhat valuable to them personally. Nationally, more than half of police departments utilize body cameras.

“According to the Justice Department, there are 18,500 police agencies in the country. In 2013, there were 4,500 agencies with body-worn camera videos,” he said. “In 2018, there were 10,500.”

In some ways, those departments are catching up to individual officers.

“I know that there are officers that buy their own. I bought one, early in the process. Just in case,” Linn said.

That decision was inspired by a story of a motorcycle patrol officer who had bought a personal body camera that he used when on duty. Footage from a particular stop became critical in defending his career when he faced a serious complaint.

“There were some pretty ugly implications involved in the complaint, and the officer walked in and said, ‘Here, why don’t we watch it?’ and pushed play in front of his command staff,” Linn said. “He was able to play the whole thing, and it was completely unfounded. In fact, the complaining party ended up actually arrested for false reporting because it was really, really egregious.”

That’s not to say that police officers never make mistakes, he emphasized, but having the body camera offers an added sense of security — and responsibility.

“In a sense … it does impact the way we act on the scenes,” Linn said. “I know when I’m recording, I am very aware that I am recording, and I believe that makes me more thoughtful about how I express myself.”

While body camera footage becomes important in more serious cases — Davis will sometimes walk the perimeter of a scene to ensure his camera captures everything if there is a death involved — day-to-day police work in Aspen is, thankfully, less dramatic.

“Most of the time, you’re on a traffic stop, you’re capturing that interaction. It’s interviews with people. Where they really become big are use of force situations and officer-involved shootings, things like that,” Davis said. “Hopefully, we don’t have to worry about that.”

At that, both men literally knocked on wood.

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.