Lights, camera, accountability

Police pulled you over in North St. Paul? Behave yourself - you're now on camera.

The North St. Paul Police Department recently received grant funding for the latest technological gadget: in-squad dash cameras.

In early November, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety distributed $2.9 million in federal grant money to law enforcement agencies around the state for purchasing and installing cameras.

The main purpose was to increase accountability, according to Michael Campion, commissioner for the Department of Public Safety. "The intent of the in-car cameras is to strengthen relationships between law enforcement and communities by initiating productive discussions and improving the trust of law enforcement within the community," he said in a statement.

Overall, the grant sent 620 cameras to 134 different agencies, including six to North St. Paul.

Forty-two percent of the agencies that applied - North St. Paul included - previously had no dash cameras in their fleet of squad cars.

North St. Paul also received a separate federal grant that provided funding for four more cameras, so the department went from possessing zero to 10 cameras in a matter of months, which is enough to outfit the entire fleet of squad cars.

To Sgt. Dustin Nikituk and the rest of the North St. Paul officers, it's a huge step forward in law enforcement. "The cameras have an unbiased version of what is going on," he said. "What is going on is actually what is going on."

"It's a great tool, and it's just technology that is changing law enforcement," Nikituk said. "From where it's been to where it's going, it's an incredible change."

Multi-purpose tool
These high-quality cameras utilize infrared technology to provide video in low-light situations. They don't come cheap - around $4,775 each - and that's why the grant is so beneficial for smaller police agencies like North St. Paul, according to Nikituk.

"With budgets and the economy, it would have never been possible without the grant opportunities in the state," he said.

The Maplewood Police Department, a larger agency, installed dash cameras in all its normal squad cars over a year ago and had no need to apply for the grant, according to Maplewood deputy chief Dave Kvam.

The dash cameras automatically turn on when the light bar is activated or when the squad reaches a certain speed, and officers can also manually turn on the equipment.

Camera functions are applicable in many situations beyond simply recording officer-citizen interaction, Nikituk said. Officers can follow and use the camera to zoom in on the license plates of suspects who flee. If officers receive complaints about speeding problems at a certain intersection, police can park a squad and use the dashboard camera to take video of an intersection for an extended period of time to monitor speeds. And a supervising officer can use the video to critique a new recruit on conduct and safety issues, Nikituk said.

"You can review (video) for report writing purposes and get those accurate witness statements. Especially in a DWI arrest, for example, with all the different field sobriety tests performed. And it's a great tool for prosecution also," he said.

Also with the grant, the entire squad car is rigged up with microphones, and officers have wireless microphones to record conversations outside the vehicle.

"You can take these (microphones) away from the squad and not only use them for traffic-related functions but also can be used in domestic situations getting people's sides of the story recorded," Nikituk said.

"So the days of using a cassette tape and trying to record a statement are a thing of the past, he said. "It's all digital technology now, and now we've even moved to digital wireless technology in terms of recording and then (downloading) to a central server."

Nikituk said any time officers get close enough to the police station recorded footage automatically begins downloading.

A retention policy is already in place for how long audio and video is saved on the server. Specific crimes are only retained for a short period of time; others are on the server indefinitely, Nikituk said.

And individual officers can't delete audio and video footage - an added measure of accountability. "It's not selective downloading," he said. "Everything is downloaded on the server from the camera."

When in doubt, the public and the police can look back to video footage as indisputable evidence.

Said Nikituk: "It benefits everybody; not only officers, but citizens and the community in general."

Cory Streeter can be reached at cstreeter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7825.

Comment Here