ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Saturday evening March 24 saw two fatal shootings by law enforcement officers across Alaska, one by an Alaska State Trooper in the village of Nikolaevsk, the other by an Anchorage Police Department officer inside an East Anchorage trailer park; neither department uses body cameras, a tool that is increasingly employed by police across the country to document such incidents.
Renee Oistad, a public affairs spokesperson with APD, says the department has no updates on whether the technology will be adopted or how much it would cost to roll out the technology across the department. Instead, APD is focusing on developing its in-car camera systems.
Meanwhile, Jonathon Taylor, the communications director for the Department of Public Safety, says Alaska State Troopers won’t be adopting body cameras anytime soon. “Given fiscal constraints, our ongoing efforts to recruit and retain more Troopers and to fill existing vacancies, issuing body-worn cameras is not being considered at this time.”
While body cams have been used as evidence in police shootings in Sewardandin Fairbanks and also in allegations of police abuse involving officers in Palmer, there have been concerns the technology may lead to invasions of privacy.
In early 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union updated its policy regarding body cameras saying the issue is a tough one: Advocates point to the potential for greater police oversight while critics say innocent people’s privacy is at risk.
The ACLU recommended changes be made to what kind of video is subject to public release claiming that the majority of body camera should not be made public in the interests of privacy. “The exception is where there is a strong public interest in that video that outweighs privacy concerns: where there is a use of force, or a complaint against an officer.”
Casey Reynolds, the communications director for the ACLU of Alaska, says one of the focuses of the new policy is to protect the privacy of people who are inadvertently caught up in body cam footage.
Like the debate about drone footage in Anchorage, the ACLU of Alaska is also insistent that body camera footage be kept for as short a time as possible, unless there are allegations of misconduct or depictions of violent interactions.
Anchorage body cameras
While APD doesn’t use body cams, other law enforcement departments and community groups within the city are currently using the technology.
The University of Alaska, Anchorage police use them on campus and Jason Cates, a supervisor with Anchorage Safety Patrol, says the department outfits its officers with GoPro cameras as they pick up inebriated people across the city. The footage is then stored within servers owned by the municipality of Anchorage and Cates says there is an awareness of privacy concerns - particularly with people’s medical conditions.
The Anchorage Downtown Partnership has also been using body cams for its safety ambassadors and maintenance workers for the past six months.
The organization’s executive director, Jamie Boring, says they’ve proven to be a useful documentation and training tool. The non-profit is able to record interactions with the public or review footage of areas around the city that need be repaired.
Boring says the organization doesn’t store the footage long-term, instead, handing over it to police when needed, or simply recording over it.
Across the state
In the last few years, body cameras have been adopted by an increasing number of departments across the state. In an email, Lance Ketterling, the chief of the Palmer Police Department wrote that body cameras have been effective tools and officers have liked them.
Despite the allegations against members of his department, Ketterling writes there have been no implementation challenges “with the possible exception of storage for the files.”
Juneau police began trialing body cameras back in January with five officers currently testing the technology, there are hopes to take them department wide by the middle of the year.
The Chief of Soldotna police, Peter Mlynarik, says the department has had a good experience using body cameras after they were implemented around a year ago. “They provide us with good information for case preparation and also if there’s any questions in a case.”
Mlynarik is careful to note that cameras “don’t give everything” to investigators. If the officer is facing away, the camera may not record what the human eye sees and vice versa. “Some people think that, ‘oh the camera shows it, that’s what the officer saw,’” said Mlynarik.
Chief Eric Jewkes with the Fairbanks Police Department echoes the “limitations of video.” “We see controversial interactions with police and the public and the videos are released without context, knowledge and expertise and judgments are made on what people see and that’s not a complete story.”
Jewkes says it’s important to remember that video is one component of evidence and may not tell the full story of an interaction.
As for when officers record from their body cameras, Jewkes says FPD aren’t expected to use them for every interaction. “I don’t think everyone that comes and talks to a police officer necessarily wants to be video recorded.”
Jewkes says FPD officers film during traffic enforcement or a criminal case but they may not want to record when a concerned mother comes in and talks to police with their teenager. “People want to feel like they can have a semi-private conversation with an officer and get some advice.”
In Soldotna, there are policies intended to protect privacy. Mlynarik says officers generally record when they make contact with a person, but in sensitive areas like bathrooms, officers may only record sound rather than video.
The footage is then stored in a protected cloud online to stop people from accessing it. Jewkes says FPD stores footage on servers and regularly uploads terabytes of data, incurring a significant cost for the department.
Seward Police Department & Kodiak Police Department were not available at the time of publishing this article