Traverse City News and Events

Body Cams Likely To Be In Use By Local Police, Sheriff's Deputies This Summer

By Beth Milligan | April 8, 2021

After nearly a year of research and extensive field testing by deputies – as well as pressure from community advocacy groups like the antiracism task force Northern Michigan E3 – Grand Traverse County commissioners Wednesday approved purchasing body cameras for the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office. With Traverse City commissioners approving a similar measure in October for city police, both city and county law enforcement in Grand Traverse County will soon be fully equipped with body cameras in the field.

County commissioners unanimously approved a recommendation from the Sheriff’s Office to spend up to $85,000 in year one and $50,000 annually in years two through five to enter a contract with manufacturer Axon to purchase an estimated 70 body cameras for the department. Sheriff Tom Bensley said that figure would be enough to equip over 52 officers, as well as have cameras available for backup. As part of the contract, the cameras would be upgraded with brand-new equipment after a few years of use.

According to a report compiled by a Sheriff’s Office committee formed last June to research body cameras, the equipment is “becoming standard” in law enforcement – with nearly half of the police departments in the U.S. already using cameras and more departments implementing them every day. Equipment costs, potential savings, and public perception are “just a few of the considerations” for departments to weigh when considering deploying cameras, according to the report.

The Sheriff’s Office completed five-week trials with two of the top manufacturers in the industry, Axon and Getac Video Solutions – the latter of which was selected as the vendor for the Traverse City Police Department. According to the committee report, Sheriff’s Office deputies and sergeants who tested the equipment unanimously preferred Axon over Getac. Axon – whose initial product and company namesake was Taser, the electroshock weapon – supplies body cameras to more than half of the largest 1,200 police departments in the country, with the largest client being the Los Angeles Police Department at 7,545 cameras.

According to Axon, body cameras can contribute to a “reduction in the number of false complaints, decreased use of force, improved behavior of suspects and the quality of evidence gathered, enhanced public trust…(and) decreased litigation and increased cost savings for each agency.” While the Sheriff’s Office’s own research found that the impact of cameras on use of force “is less certain,” benefits like reducing citizen complaints and improved evidence-gathering are clearer. The committee report noted that in a five-week period testing six cameras in the field in Grand Traverse County, the Sheriff’s Office “acquired over 600 items of evidence, including…videos, photographs, and audio recordings.”

That evidence will usher in a new era in how law enforcement and the courts operate locally, potentially expediting cases, exonerating officers, and increasing accountability for vulnerable populations sensitive to issues of police brutality and excessive force. “The prosecutor (Noelle Moeggenberg) is very excited about having body cameras for her court prosecutions,” Bensley said Wednesday. “She thinks this will greatly assist her in prosecutions in some cases.”

Moeggenberg – while previously telling The Ticker that body cameras are “the way of the future” – also noted they will significantly increase the workload for her department, including for staff who have to process evidence for discovery and handle Freedom of Information Act (FOAI) requests from the media and public. Moeggenberg plans to seek approval from commissioners to add another full-time employee to her department to handle the increased workload, a request Bensley said he supports.

Some commissioners, meanwhile, questioned Bensley on how the department will determine exactly when cameras should be running. Bensley said the current policy is to have them on whenever officers are interacting with the public, though the equipment will be manually turned on and off by officers – the cameras won’t run automatically. Commission Chair Rob Hentschel said he hoped officers would have “some discretion” on when the cameras are on, noting that recorded footage is subject to FOIA and that some members of the public – like those providing tips or giving information to officers – might not want to be recorded. Moeggenberg previously told The Ticker there are situations where cameras would either likely be turned off or have footage redacted, such as in schools and hospitals or when interviewing sexual assault or domestic violence victims.

Bensley said the department policy could be looked at and refined, and also said that officer and public safety would come first in an emergency situation over capturing footage. “If a situation arises where the officer is in danger, he takes of himself or the public first,” Bensley said. “The camera comes second.” Still, the sheriff said he wanted to avoid situations where the department was criticized for a lack of camera footage. “We’re very cognizant of the fact sometimes…it just might not work, and it might not record, and that’s been one of our concerns,” he said. “We feel that if it doesn’t work in some situation, we’ll be criticized, but it’s technology and it’s not guaranteed.”

Funding for the $85,000 camera purchase is available in the county capital improvements fund, according to County Administrator Nate Alger. The Sheriff’s Office also plans to apply for grant funding through the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority – the county’s insurer – to potentially offset initial costs, including for digital storage. The Axon cameras are expected to arrive at the Sheriff’s Office within 30-45 days of ordering the equipment, according to a vendor representative.

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