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Lake Saint Louis to equip police with body, vehicle cameras

St. Charles County has the money but not the answers to proceed with purchasing police body cameras.

Lake Saint Louis intends to purchase police body cameras and in-car dash cameras in 2017.

Lake Saint Louis will equip its police officers with body and vehicle dash cameras to record what they do on duty, becoming one of the few St. Charles County police departments to take that step.

The city’s Board of Aldermen agreed Dec. 5 to a bill authorizing spending of $44,875 to buy nine in-car and 23 body cameras to be worn by on-duty police officers. The cameras will be purchased from Kansas-based Digital Ally Inc. and may be in use in about three months.

Lake Saint Louis Police Chief Michael Force said the cameras will be beneficial for officers as well as the public. Body cameras worn by police officers and in-car dash cameras can record the interaction of police with the public.

Locally, the debate over equipping police with cameras has been vigorous since Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. Authorities would know more about the shooting if Wilson had worn a camera, protesters said.

Force said the camera protects the public and police.

“We send an officer out there without a camera with no ability to protect themselves to say this is what really happened,” Force said. “I say it’s a tool, the same as any other tool they [police officers] have available to them to make sure they are dealing with situations in the appropriate way and they can document that.”

The decision to purchase the cameras came after a county-wide evaluation of camera programs already in place at police departments and a two-month pilot program that equipped officers with cameras.

In making his case for the cameras, Force cited a 2015 evaluation of police use of body cameras by the Phoenix Police Department. That evaluation indicted that there was a 23-percent decline in complaints against a group of officers wearing cameras, a 10-percent increase in complaints in a control group that didn’t have them and a 45-percent increase overall among officers.

But concerns about privacy and other issues have prompted a debate about the cameras and some local police departments have held back on acquiring them. The Wentzville Police Department has used cameras for several years. The St. Charles Police Department has used cameras for more than a year and may acquire new dash cameras, Lt. Todd Wilson, a department spokesperson, said. In January 2015, the St. Charles City Council voted to spend $424,437 to buy 90 cameras.

St. Charles County government officials discussed allocating funding for equipping St. Charles County police officers in its 2015 budget, but held off due to concerns about information storage and privacy issues.

“I think what a lot of people waited for was to see if they [cameras] were going to be mandated,” Force said. “If it was mandated, then the state might have made some funds available. They did not.”

A new state law signed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in July would bar public access to body camera and vehicle footage during ongoing investigations and limit access at “nonpublic locations” such as homes or schools. People in a video, families and attorneys could access the video, but others would need a judge’s ruling.

Force said during the pilot test period, one shift of his department were equipped with the cameras. All had “favorable comments” toward the cameras when Force interviewed those officers. One concern was not being able to turn on the camera on all occasions. Force said the city’s police policy said officers can “annotate” the fact that they didn’t turn on the camera in a report to their supervisors.

Having a camera also is important when virtually anyone with a cellphone can record police interactions.

“It’s important that we have an accurate documentation of what happens,” Force said. “And you can’t ensure that unless we’re doing the recording.”

Force noted that the officers in the pilot program said the cameras did not change how they worked. He said he suspects officers at first may have been a bit apprehensive about cameras looking over their shoulders, but accepted them as time went on. “You get used to it,” he said.

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