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Willmar police to have body cameras early next year after policy established

WILLMAR -- After years of research and discussion, the Willmar Police Department is finally ready to buy its first body cameras, with the hope to have patrol officers outfitted and recording by spring.

Shelby Lindrud / TribuneWillmar Police Chief Jim Felt reviews a brochure from WatchGuard, the company from which the Police Department will be purchasing 24 body cameras. Felt hopes to have the new cameras up and running in spring 2018.
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt reviews a brochure from WatchGuard, the company from which the Police Department will be purchasing 24 body cameras. Felt hopes to have the new cameras up and running in spring 2018.

WILLMAR - After years of research and discussion, the Willmar Police Department is finally ready to buy its first body cameras, with the hope to have patrol officers outfitted and recording by spring.

"We try to be forward-thinking on the job. If you can use technology to enhance what you do, all the better for you and the public," Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt said.

Willmar will be joining at least 37 other Minnesota police departments who use body cameras, including Benson, Hutchinson and the Lower and Upper Sioux.

The Willmar City Council at the Dec. 4 council meeting unanimously approved the purchase of 24 body cameras from WatchGuard for approximately $32,000.

"I agree, given the culture, the expectations of the public now, what they want for investigations, calls and explanations of what happened at calls," said Councilor Julie Asmus, herself a retired Willmar police officer.

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Felt initially requested purchasing 12 cameras in 2017 and 12 in 2018, but the council decided to go ahead and get the lot right away.

"That was a pleasant surprise," Felt said, adding the department hopes to eventually purchase enough cameras for every officer.

The Willmar Police Department has been looking at getting body cameras since at least 2012, Felt said. While no specific incident has pushed the department in this direction, the officers have come to see the benefits of having video recordings of even the day-to-day events.

"You can pick up things from a video recording that you can't on an audio recording," Felt said.

Over the past several months Felt has had officers test several different brands and types of body cameras to find the right fit for Willmar.

"We tried about seven cameras from different companies," Felt said.

They landed on WatchGuard because they would tie in with the squad vehicles' dashboard cameras, along with offering redaction software and a battery life that should last an entire 12-hour shift.

Last year the department upgraded its video server, preparing for the day body cameras would be in use. Video needs a lot of data storage space, and it has been a significant investment in both time and money for the department to get ready.

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"There is a ton of amount of work going in to it," Felt said.

One of the reasons it has taken so long for Willmar to get a camera program going was it was waiting for the state's lawmakers to decide how departments would use the cameras and the data collected. A rash of high-profile police shootings also brought the question of body cameras more to the forefront of public thinking and the Legislature finally approved legislation in 2016, going into effect this year.

"We figured eventually they would figure it out," Felt said.

The state law covers items such as the classification of data, how long data has to be retained and outlines a biennial audit required of all departments that use body cameras.

Before the local department can use the cameras, it needs to establish a body camera policy, which has to be approved by the City Council. A committee of seven officers, ranging from patrol to captain to chief, have already been meeting to create the city's policy.

"We are trying to get all the perspective in the department," Felt said.

Questions that need be answered in the city's policy include when the cameras have to be on - both when they should be and when they should not. Also, whether the officers can view the videotape before writing their reports needs to be addressed.

"We are not looking for gotcha moments," Felt said, but it's about more accurate police reports.

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The department has to hold at least one public meeting on the policy, though Felt plans to hold two.

"A chance for the public to offer their input," Felt said.

The Willmar police officers are looking forward to getting the cameras up and running and hope it can also be a tool to show the community exactly what it means to be a police officer.

"Get a clearer view of what law enforcement does in the Willmar Community," Felt said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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