Billings Police Chief Sends Memo to Billings Mayor, City Administrator and City Council Regarding His Views On Police Body Cameras

April 5, 2016




To:          Mayor Hanel and Billings City Council

CC:         City Administrator Tina Volek

From:     Chief St. John

Date:      4/5/2016


Re:         Council Initiative – Body Cameras





Body worn video, commonly known as body cameras, is a video recording system that is typically utilized by law enforcement to record their interactions with the public or gather video evidence at crime scenes.  Body cameras have been known to increase both officer and citizen accountability. Body cameras are notable because their placement, often on the front of a shirt, provides for first-person perspective and a more complete chain of evidence.


Body camera discussions came to the national forefront in 2014 with incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland, and New York City.  Those incidents sparked widespread protest about police violence.  Use of body cameras is seen by police reformists as part of the solution to curb police violence.       




The Billings Police Department is not opposed to using body cameras in our patrol division.  But, it is important to understand that a body camera program is not panacea, but a tool to help show the totality of a particular situation. 


Body cameras are currently used by our K9 unit, School Resource Officers, Animal Control Officers, and Downtown Officers.  The reason why these officers are using body cameras is because they are often away from their respective in-car video system. 


There is validity in the fact that body cameras will help improve officer and citizen accountability.  It should be noted that our current system records video from in front of the car, in the back seat of patrol cars, and captures audio as far away as several hundred feet and from inside buildings.  The BPD has an Office of Professional Standards that handles all complaints of misconduct.  The Office of Professional Standards produces a comprehensive report each year.  In 2015, the department received and investigated seven (7) allegations of excessive force with none sustained.  Further perspective is that those seven (7) allegations were generated out of 3,136 arrests in 2015.  That amounts to .002% of all arrests.  BPD officers are professional and acting within policy and procedure.  As a result, the BPD has excellent rapport, trust, and relationships with the public. 


Body Camera Pros and Cons:




  • Prevent Violence — both police and citizens are less likely to use violence.  Body cameras could thus make the streets safer for both officers and the general public.


  • Accountability — Body cameras will hold police accountable for their appropriate, and inappropriate, conduct.  Similarly, this applies to citizens as well.  Body cameras could prevent cases like Ferguson and Baltimore, where there was no way for the public to know for sure what had happened.


  • Incontestable Evidence – Preferred by prosecutors and jurors. 


  • Human Side of Policing — Improve the public’s view of policing by showing the human side, people at their best, people at their worst, compassion, grieving, tragedy.




  • Privacy — Body cameras are seen as an invasion of privacy.  When police cameras are on, they will capture everyday civilian and police behavior that does not necessarily need to be recorded. Do all defendants want their arrests recorded? Do all bystanders want to be in those videos when shown in court?


  • Limitations —

    • Camera does not follow eyes or see as they see.

    • Some important danger cues can’t be recorded.

    • Camera speed differs from speed of life. (action/reaction)

    • Cameras see better in low light.

    • Body blocks view.

    • Camera only records in 2D.

    • One camera may not provide understanding of dynamics of incident.

    • Camera encourages second guessing.

    • Body cameras are damaged and/or lost more than in-car camera.


Policy/Legal Issues:


  • Is it legal to record?

  • What is duty to preserve and disclose?

  • Establish chain of custody?

  • Public access?

  • Privacy?

  • Camera operation protocol?

  • MMIA admonitions.

    • Retention and reproduction problems that inhibit liability defense could result in cost shifted to city.


Body Camera FAQ’s:


Why not issue everybody a Go-Pro camera?  They are cheaper. 


Go-Pro cameras are not designed for police work.  They are not tactical in that they emit a flashing red light and cannot be readily mounted to our equipment.  Further, they cannot be encrypted.  All recordings would be accessible to whoever had the camera.  


What policies and rules are of primary concern?


When to turn the camera on/off and whether to allow officers to review footage before writing their report. 


Will an officer be able to review data before writing a report now? 


Yes.  Consistent with current practice with existing system.       


Can officers erase data?




How long will data be saved?


120 days, pursuant to existing procedures with in-car video system.


Do officers have to notify the public they are being recorded?


Not required in a public place.  Legal question if we are on/in private property.  Advising citizens will meet constitutional requirements even if not needed. 


If a citizen tells and officer to turn off the camera, will the officer have to?




Who is responsible for redaction if review of a public records request determines some data should not be released?


City Attorney’s Office.  Software and training needed.    


What can be released to the public?


All audio and video is considered a public record and releasable pending review by legal.  Some things may be redacted as they are not considered part of the public record.


What is my opinion of body cameras?


Consistent with other chiefs and sheriffs.  That is, it will improve accountability for both officers and citizens.  It will provide information on whether our policies, procedures, and training are contemporary that that we are providing the best customer service possible. 




Unrealistic expectation of what body cameras can do and what information they can provide.  On-going costs may become unsustainable. 



Why WatchGuard will be recommended vendor:


WatchGuard is currently the system we use in our patrol cars.  Logistics to include the server backbone, warranty, and service plan are already in place.  Implementation of body cameras would be seamless and effectively interface with existing equipment, both in the cars, and at PD1 where downloads occur.  The specialized units mentioned previously, are using WatchGuard cameras.  To transition to another vendor would be unwise and cost prohibitive. 


System Costs:   


  • WatchGuard hardware and software (one time set up).$97,495.00.

    • 95 body cameras


    • Docking stations

    • Software protection


  • WatchGuard system setup @ $1,000 a day x 3 days$3,000.00.

  • WatchGuard Site and IT Support.$1,000.00.

  • DVD’s for video copying per year.$2,500.00.

  • For consideration:

    • Increase in video repair line item.

    • Extending maintenance warranties.

    • Increased demands on staff and commensurate costs.



Ongoing Costs:


  • Server and data storage per year (current charges).$163,000.00.




  • Five (5) year cycle to change server and upgrade storage.






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