Troopers plan to launch statewide bodycam program in rural Alaska
Officials say the cameras are long overdue for the troopers, the largest law enforcement agency in the state
By Tess Williams
Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Department of Public Safety plans to outfit more than 400 employees with body-worn cameras by next summer, including Alaska State Troopers statewide and Village Public Safety Officers in rural Alaska.
Officials say the cameras are long overdue for the troopers, the largest law enforcement agency in the state.
The department plans to start the body camera rollout in rural communities in January and hopes to finish equipping employees, including fire marshals and court services officers, with the devices by next summer. A draft policy is expected to be released this winter.
That timeline is fairly aggressive, especially when compared to lengthy delays in the Anchorage Police Department's plan to equip officers with body cameras.
Top Anchorage police officials say they have no official timeline yet despite initial plans to outfit the force by the end of 2021. They cite issues including delays finalizing a body camera policy, negotiations with the police union over whether officers will be allowed to review footage before being interviewed or making statements, and legal and logistical concerns from municipal attorneys.
The troopers' proposal comes with its own challenges, particularly related to applying the technology in rural Alaska, where limited internet access could make backing up footage online difficult.
The department also still needs to purchase the cameras and other necessary equipment, as well as finalize policies surrounding their use. That's all expected to occur in the next few months, DPS Commissioner James Cockrell said in a recent interview.
As of this week, the camera purchase was moving through the state procurement process and the order was expected to be placed in the coming days, according to troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel.
Cockrell said the department plans to order about 600 Motorola body cameras and officers will back up footage to a storage cloud operated by the same company that currently stores data collected by dashboard cameras already in use.
Body cameras, he said, are a priority for the department because they provide transparency.
"People in this state deserve to know what their law enforcement officers are doing," Cockrell said.
James Kvamme, VPSO coordinator for the Copper River Native Association, said he's eager for the department to implement body cameras. The technology is beneficial for officers and for the public because it provides accountability, Kvamme said.
"It keeps everybody honest," he said. "It keeps the public honest and it keeps us honest."
The state plans to equip officers in rural Alaska with body cameras first. Plans call for the public safety department to start testing the cameras on a limited basis in January.
"The worst thing we could do is deploy all 600 of them to the department and then have all these issues come up," Cockrell said. "So we want to start small, start tackling issues that we have and get those fixed before we fully implement."
Public safety officials have yet to decide which communities will launch the program, troopers spokesman McDaniel said.
Cockrell said he expects connectivity issues in rural Alaska to be the biggest hurdle. Internet connectivity varies by community and in many places is not strong enough to transmit large data files, like videos. Because of the differences in each village, Cockrell said it's unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution.
In areas where it won't be possible to upload footage, Cockrell said troopers or village officers may need to mail the device's SIM card to Anchorage so it can be uploaded from there.
The program's costs are being covered by a combination of state and federal funding.
The Department of Public Safety received roughly $3.5 million from the Legislature to pursue body cameras, Cockrell said. They were also awarded nearly $1 million in matching federal grant funds for the program.
While the equipment and startup costs are estimated to be about $4.5 million, he said there will be ongoing costs related to the technology that can't yet be estimated.
Ongoing costs may include increased cloud storage needed for video, or additional staff to handle more complex public records requests, he said.
The department plans to continue applying for federal funds in upcoming years, Cockrell said, and will ask the Legislature for additional money to support the program as they pinpoint what ongoing costs will be. He said he didn't anticipate problems securing additional funding.
The department plans to fully implement body cameras for all employees by the middle of next summer, he said, adding the equipment purchase could be delayed by a global chip shortage but he doesn't foresee any major delays.
Rich Curtner, who is co-chair of the Alaska Black Caucus' Justice Committee, said he is hopeful troopers will stick to their timeline. Body cameras, he said, would be an especially good thing for people in rural Alaska.
The Alaska Black Caucus has been closely following the APD body camera delays and pressing for action.
The addition of body-worn cameras is expected to create changes at the Department of Law because prosecutors will have a new form of evidence for use during jury trials. It may also raise questions about how the footage dovetails with privacy rights and open records laws, said Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore.
Still, the department is supportive of body cameras, Skidmore said.
"There are challenges with the implementation of body cams — there's no question about that," he said. "But from a standpoint of, is more information better? The answer is always yes."
The law department will need to figure out how prosecutors are receiving the footage and how they will be able to redact and share it with criminal defense attorneys.
It's especially challenging, he said, because troopers and Anchorage police, the two biggest law enforcement agencies in the state, are both currently working on plans to implement body cameras. Because the departments are run by the state and the Municipality of Anchorage, respectively, there will likely be different systems and methods involved for dealing with the footage, Skidmore said.
Skidmore said he expects body camera footage could confuse some juries who might expect the cameras to capture an entire incident when they only capture images in front of them, not information or context occurring out of the frame.
He also said he expects the law department, which assists with Department of Public Safety records requests, to start receiving more complex requests requiring them to balance privacy interests with open records statutes.
Privacy is written into Alaska's state constitution. Skidmore said he foresees legal questions about body cameras and access to the footage because officers often enter people's homes or encounter them during their worst moments.
"I'm not going to be excited if law enforcement has to respond to my house for something and now the inside of my house has been captured and is available for a public records request," Skidmore said. "Think about that as a citizen — do you want to have the inside of your home, the layout of your home, all the items in your home, do you want to have all that captured on a video and then placed out there for everyone who wants to get a copy of this recording?"
A Department of Public Safety committee drafting the state's body camera policy is relying largely on best-practice guidelines from other departments across the country, along with recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Cockrell said. The committee is adapting those guidelines to fit Alaska law.
The department plans to release footage of use-of-force or officer-involved shootings without a formal records request, McDaniel said. The committee is still determining details for how that would work, including how quickly the footage would be released.
Cockrell said he wants officers to be able to review footage in use-of-force situations before making statements or undergoing interviews — one of the issues delaying the Anchorage Police Department's rollout of body-worn cameras. The Department of Public Safety policy is not subject to union negotiations, McDaniel said.
"There's a lot of things in an officer-involved shooting — there's a lot of dynamics, there's tunnel vision, there's just a lot of emotional things that happen," Cockrell said. "And, that's why we don't interview somebody right at the spot because your brain is processing a lot of information and you almost have to be set aside to reprocess all of the information."
The draft policy is expected to be released for public comment this winter.