Starting this week, all St. Helens Police Department officers will be wearing body cameras while on patrol.
The police department recently received 15 cameras for its uniformed officers and, for one year, officers will use the cameras, upload videos on a daily basis to a cloud-based storage system, and retain recorded files — all at no cost to the department.
The program went into full effect Tuesday, Aug. 15, when all officers were fully outfitted with equipment from Axon, a company that develops body cameras for police and military use.
Earlier this month, Police Chief Terry Moss said officers were given the chance to test the cameras and get used to the procedural changes that come into play before the policies became official.
"What we're finding already is that it's one more thing to think about when you get out of that car. Turning the camera on, turning the camera off, telling somebody you're recording," Moss said. "You know, it's all those little procedural steps that if you're not used to it, you're going to forget, so we wanted to give everybody a couple weeks to play with it and get used to it."
After a brief warm-up period, every officer is now required to wear the camera while on duty, and internal policies dictate when cameras should be turned on to record. In certain situations — traffic stops, investigative and law enforcement contact situations, incidents that require use of force — officers will be required to record, but will inform public members they are doing so. People can request to not be recorded, but it is at the officers' discretion to decide if the camera should be used.
Officers like Jose Castilleja and Dustin King see the cameras as a benefit to their safety and to their accountability.
King said the most valuable attribute of the recording device is clear to him — it provides an accurate account of what happened in a given situation.
"A camera can't lie," King said.
Additionally, it can be a beneficial tool when a case goes to court eight to 10 months after an incident occurred, King said. The video recordings can be helpful to remind someone what actions they took.
For Castilleja, it's important to note that a body camera is another useful tool for law enforcement as well as the public. Still, it is just one tool out of many officers use to document patrol activity. The camera only provides one perspective of a situation, but it can help indicate what happened.
"The best thing is the transparency that it provides," Castilleja said. "It's a great opportunity to show our community what we do."
Moss said he began looking into body cams for his officers several years ago, but the high cost was a deterrent and not something he could find room for in the department's budget.
Then Moss found out about an offer from Axon. The company offers a one-year, no-obligation, free trial of its cameras and accompanying software for law enforcement agencies to use.
During the most recent budget planning process, Moss told the city about his intent to get the cameras and asked if the purchase could be accounted for in the 2018-19 budget. When they agreed that money would likely be available, he went forward with the plan.
The cost of each camera is between $400 and $600 each, Moss explained, a reduction from the $900 price tag the equipment sported a few years ago.
In some ways, Moss said the department is "late to the party in some regard" when it comes to using the technology that is directly attached to officers' safety vests. Many agencies already use body cameras on a regular basis.
Regardless, Moss is excited about the program.
"There are so many positive things that are going to come out of this, but I just keep talking about this accountability thing, for all of us," Moss said. "And I think it works both ways. It's an accountability thing for the community, that we wear these things to document our interactions with the public, but it also documents
our actions and behavior and things we do."