By Jerzy Shedlock

Police departments across Alaska are opting to equip their ranks with video cameras, joining a national trend to make law enforcement interactions with the public more transparent following deadly officer-involved shootings elsewhere in the United States.

Police officials here said the implementation of the technology isn't far off from previous practices. It's not a major change given the use of vehicle dashboard cameras and audio recorders for years, they said. Two of the state's largest law enforcement agencies are still considering how to implement the cameras, however.

There are about 400 state and wildlife troopers spread across Alaska, none of whom are currently equipped with body cameras. Outfitting all troopers with body-worn cameras is one of AST Director Col. James Cockrell's top priorities, said troopers' spokesperson Megan Peters.

AST is currently developing workable policies and operations for body cameras, like providing enough storage space for videos kept as evidence and extra staff to support that system, Peters said.

Troopers also are seeking funding sources to buy and support the equipment. They are exploring both state and federal funding sources, Peters said.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last week that it would provide $20 million in federal grants to 73 law enforcement agencies nationwide to start using body cameras. The grants will help the departments buy 21,000 cameras -- fewer than half of the 55,000 cameras that 285 agencies have requested, according to Huffington Post.

The DOJ already determined which departments would receive the large grants for body cameras, and Alaska agencies weren't listed as recipients.

The Anchorage Police Department also doesn't have body cameras -- yet. Officials at both departments said they were not ready to discuss the potential costs associated with body cameras. There are still too many unknowns, they said. Newer models cost about $150 per camera, and training can take less than a hour, Alaska police chiefs said.

APD has many considerations to resolve before cameras can be put to use, according to spokesperson Jennifer Castro. Among the decisions: when to record, when to notify someone they're being recorded, using recordings to evaluate officer performance and whether the recordings are official records that can be shared with the public, among other things.

A clearer picture

APD needs to determine how it will use the videos to write police reports.

A study published in the Illinois-based, peer-reviewed Journal of Law Enforcement this year put an easy-to-reach sample of law enforcement officers through several scenarios and had them write use-of-force reports, one from memory and another after reviewing body camera footage.

It found reviewing the video improved the accuracy of the officers' reports.

When Shane Tasi was shot and killed by an Anchorage police officer in 2012, the community and police scrutinized apartment complex surveillance video of Tasi's final moments. The quality of the video was fuzzy; it had no sound.

The officer, Boaz Gionson, was later cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a state agency.

Tasi left behind a wife and children. The widow sued the Municipality of Anchorage last year. Her attorney argues Gionson and other responding officers violated Tasi's state and federal constitutional rights.

Members of the Polynesian community voiced concern about the fatal shooting, but were reassured of their safety after meeting with Anchorage police. Still, the president of the Polynesian Association of Alaska, Lucy Hansen, said if officer Gionson was wearing a body camera, the community may have gotten a clearer picture of what happened.

Hansen said she also thinks the officer would have acted differently knowing there was a camera recording the interaction with Tasi.

"I think it would be very helpful for the community, not just the community but for officers to solve cases so people aren't left wondering what really happened," she said.

Changing behavior?

Police chiefs from several departments in Alaska hesitated to comment on whether they thought the cameras changed officers' behavior.

Kenai police Chief Gus Sandahl said the technology provides his officers with incentive to boost professional standards. But those standards were maintained before the department started using cameras in early July, he said.

"I feel we've always had a professional department," Sandahl said. "I expect professionalism from the officers, and the cameras may reinforce that for them, as well as people they interact with."

University of Alaska Anchorage police Chief Brad Munn echoed Sandahl's statements but contended people under the influence are likely unaffected. People who are drunk or high on drugs often get upset by police contact, and their uncontrolled behavior won't change because of a camera, Munn said.

Police departments have reported huge drops in use-of-force incidents as well as citizen complaints due to body cameras. Since implementing the devices in 2010 in Oakland, population 400,000, use-of-force incidents fell 72 percent, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

Castro, the Anchorage police spokesperson, noted Oakland's use-of-force reduction in APD's evaluation of body camera use nationwide.

Positive feedback

The Kenai Police Department is one of a handful of agencies that have recently started using or committed to using body cameras.

Since July, Sandahl said his 12 patrol officers have relayed nothing but positive feedback about their new tool. Most of the cameras can be placed in a number of locations around the head.

In the neighboring Kenai Peninsula community of Soldotna, the police department started testing the devices about a year ago, said Chief Peter Mlynarik.

"Generally, the officers turn the cameras on when they're interacting with people or investigating anything," Mlynarik said. "We're not going to use them where people have expectations of privacy, like locker rooms and bathrooms. We're going to respect that, unless there's a crime in progress."

The smaller police departments, how most in Alaska can be characterized, have hired contractors to store their videos.

Storing the data online in a cloud, which the vendor maintains, circumvents the need for a tech professional and in-house server, said UAA Chief Munn. Officers place their assigned cameras on chargers at the end of their shifts, and the video is sent to the cloud. Soon after, the officers categorize the videos as needed or not needed, among other things.

UAA's officers do not have the ability to delete the videos. Officers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks do. UAF deputy chief Stephen Goetz said his department's newest storage system allows officers to delete video. So far, they haven't had a problem with that approach, he said.

Police departments at the two state universities have led the way in the use of body-worn cameras. UAA started using the cameras in January 2013, while the Interior university started using them in the mid-2000s.

"We unanimously concurred that it would be to our benefit in terms of liability to get them so that people couldn't file complaints against us for various things where we can't present proof," said Goetz.

(c)2015 the Alaska Dispatch News