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City approves spending for police body cameras

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The display from the onboard camera system gives officers a view from the front as well as a view of the back seat.

Clip-on microphones are currently worn by officers. The new body cameras will have magnetic connectors that will let them be worn on the uniform or vests with a camera that can be worn over the uniform.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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STERLING HEIGHTS — Sterling Heights police officers will soon be toting cameras around, but it won’t be because they decided to become cinematographers.

During a Sept. 15 Sterling Heights City Council meeting, the council voted unanimously to approve spending for a batch of 24 police officer body cameras and related equipment.

To do this, the department is buying new WatchGuard in-car and body video camera systems, along with associated server space upgrades. In all, the new tech costs $237,703, though the plan is to pay part of that with $58,500 in expected grant funds.

During the meeting, Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski said the police studied body cameras in 2016, back when no Macomb County police agency had them. Nowadays, the technology is still fairly new, but the devices are more common, and “the price is finally correct for what you’re getting,” he said.

According to city officials, a new body camera, along with its related components, costs around $5,900. The body cameras will come from Texas-based company WatchGuard, which was acquired by Motorola, Dwojakowski said.

Up until now, the department has given officers a portable microphone while on duty, and patrol vehicles have dashboard cameras that record video. But a dashcam is less useful once an officer steps inside a building or leaves the camera’s view, the chief explained.

The decision to equip Sterling Heights officers with cameras comes after a series of high-profile deadly interactions throughout the country between Black people and police, and the protests and debates that followed.

One of the biggest benefits to body cameras is the transparency factor of having evidence of what happens during interactions, he said. He also said both officers and the public have an added incentive to be civil while being recorded.

“Right now, we have microphones on our belt, but wait till a camera is mounted right to the center of an officer’s chest,” the chief said.

“There is a mutual agreement amongst most parties when you’re being videotaped that you’re going to be on your best behavior. That’s good for the officer, and it’s good for the citizen or the person we’re having the encounter with.”

He said studies have shown that the cameras make officers more productive and earn fewer complaints against them. Another study also showed a decrease in how often force is used, he said.

“When you do the complaint and you finally get the video, 90-plus percent of those complaints are resolved in the officer’s favor,” he said.

Dwojakowski said the police have also been coordinating with Sterling Heights’ IT department on server capacity for more digital footage. He said about $120,000 is budgeted in the proposal to hold 424 terabytes of video storage.

“The cost of video storage is huge. When you record … we already have terabyte upon terabyte of video storage just from our in-car (cameras),” he said. “Wait till we have body cameras. The video footage is astronomical.”

Dwojakowski said 60-70 vehicles will need new in-car camera systems, so those cars will eventually be updated with new in-car systems with body cam synergies — but that will be gradual, as grant money helps cushion the financial costs. He said he wants to install the body cam tech in 19 cars over the next few months. The city will also buy five additional body cameras in case a passenger officer needs to use one, too.

“To be honest with you, to get 19 cars up and running is going to take us three to four months minimum to get those cars outfitted,” he said. “So after that, (for) the remaining 50 body cameras, we’re going to wait for the July 1 budget year next year to finish out this project and buy the rest of the equipment with the federal grant.”

Councilman Michael Radtke said he supports the body camera idea but wanted to know under which circumstances they’d be activated. Dwojakowski said it would be whenever police have contact with a citizen.

The chief added that the department’s typical archival video policy is to keep footage for around 90 days, or forever if it involves an arrest or a high-profile incident.

Mayor Michael Taylor said he has full confidence in the Police Department and believes that the cameras will promote transparency. Mayor Pro Tem Liz Sierawski said she is excited about the proposal.

“We’ve heard a camera is worth a thousand words, but the placement of that camera is what’s most important,” she said. “And yes, I think that this is going to be the most fair, the most transparent and the most equitable form of videotaping that we can ever provide … with the technology that we currently have.”

In late September, Dwojakowski said the cameras should be coming to the police in a couple of weeks, though it will take longer to get them set up and ready for work shifts.

“Our first batch will be ready to go by November or December,” he said.

Learn more about the Sterling Heights Police Department by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2800.

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