Body cameras hit the streets of Rock Falls

September 18, 2018

ROCK FALLS – When the city’s police officers started their shifts Monday, they were equipped with new body cameras.

The Rock Falls police force became the first in the immediate area to use them. The Mendota and Clinton, Iowa, police are using the same camera system from Axon, the former Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Getting the system up and running and training has been handled primarily by Cmdr. Doug Coppotelli. The company gave the department a 60-day trial period in which to familiarize itself with the equipment.

“Last week, Axon came in and they trained the sergeants to train everyone else on how to operate them, and then they had to learn the proper procedures,” Coppotelli said.

Recently assigned school resource officer Jarrett Ludwig is the only officer not yet using a body camera; he has yet to be trained.

Chief Tammy Nelson and Coppotelli first discussed body cameras several years ago, but a couple of officer-involved shootings created a sense of urgency. The need for the equipment became apparent after the fatal shooting of Nathaniel T. “Nate” Edwards on Jan. 26.

“We had started talking about approaching the city in 2015, but the equipment is expensive and they weren’t too receptive, but when the January incident occurred, we knew we had to get this done,” Chief Tammy Nelson said.

The City Council jumped on board, and on July 3, voted unanimously to approve a 5-year, $125,500 agreement for 17 body cameras and seven squad car cameras. The department already has dashboard cameras, but these will fully integrate the system and provide cameras in the front and back of the vehicles.

The contract gives the department new body cameras every 2-and-a-half years and new car cameras every 5 years. It also includes licensing, storage, technology updates and service costs.

In June, the officers involved were exonerated in the Edwards case. While the dashcam video helped, body cameras would have provided a much better picture of what happened that night.

“We had some car video, but the audio it provided told the story,” Nelson said. “Most of what happened was out of dashcam video range, but if we’d had the body cam that day, it would have been fantastic.”

The body cameras must be turned on for any service call. Things like parades and death notifications, considered community caretaker duties, can be excluded. Crime victims, witnesses or complainants can request that the camera be turned off, but the request must be recorded.

Powerful magnets attach the camera to the officers’ chests. An Axon app, via Bluetooth, allows them to see the video on any smartphone.

At the end of a shift, officers put the cameras in a group docking station where the video is downloaded and documented on evidence.com, an Axon proprietary site.

The system includes several safeguards for the public.

“Officers can only download their own videos, and the originals can’t be changed,” Coppotelli said. “It’s in a view-only mode and only three people have administrative rights.”

The state’s attorney is allowed to log into the videos.

Police also can ask the public to submit evidence to citizen.com, another Axon app that creates an information portal.

The Edwards case cemented the need for another safeguard in the eyes of city officials. In addition to liability concerns, they see the value of the cameras as a training tool for a young police force.

“We think our officers are doing things the right way, but if something isn’t being done by the book, this video can be used as a training tool,” Mayor Bill Wescott said.

Nelson says the body cameras are likely to be mandated equipment in the next 5 years and the mayor likes that the city is ahead of the curve, believing it can save the city money in the long run.

“We have the complete system, and yes it’s costly, but we’ll get new body and car cameras again before this first contract runs out,” Wescott said.

In addition to providing more transparency, the police department sees the cameras acting as a deterrent to dangerous criminal behavior.

The new car cameras are expected to arrive in the next month.

The integrated pieces work together and add extra protection in case someone forgets to turn on a camera in certain circumstances.

“This is such a sophisticated system – if a Taser or a gun is pulled out, it will automatically start the body camera,” Nelson said.

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