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Montana law enforcement agencies share benefits of body-worn cameras

Belgrade Police was the first agencies in Gallatin Co. to invest in body cams
Posted at 10:50 AM, Feb 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-08 16:12:31-05

GALLATIN COUNTY — Body-worn cameras on law enforcement officers are becoming more and more common across the country.

In a three-part series, MTN’s Gaby Krevat talks to a few Montana agencies leading the charge on body-worn cameras; a Montana city preparing to invest in the technology, and civil rights and racial equity advocates to hear their thoughts on what the technology means for the community trust and justice.

“All of our officers are intending to do their very best on everything. And they discovered that these body cameras show that,” said Detective Justin Sharp with the Belgrade Police Department.

The Belgrade Police Department was the first to invest in the cameras in Gallatin County 10 years ago.

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The original intent was to get more evidence for DUI stops. But it became apparent quickly, the cameras served an even bigger purpose.

Not far from town, the Montana State Police Department invested in body-cameras as well.

“They’re really really nice, just to know, that it’s not just my word, right? I mean, I absolutely have documented evidence of everything that happens when it comes to citizen contacts,” said Michael Stanley, interim assistant chief of police with the Montana State University Police Department.

“What we’ve seen over the last several years is a call for more accountability, more transparency,” said Montana State University’s Chief of Police, Kevin Gillilan.

“So the body-worn cameras certainly serve that purpose. They often times promote better behavior by the citizens, but also the officers themselves.”

Chief Gillilan says they’re useful for training as well. But he acknowledges some limitations.

“The thing to remember that’s important to remember about the body-worn camera is you are limited in some respect to the field of view the camera has,” said Gillilan.

“So you’re not every aspect of a situation, but it’s certainly providing you with a good bit of detail.”

Because of that, Belgrade PD decided to take the technology a step further and invest in weapon cameras.

“Any time we draw our pistol is probably the thing we want to capture the most. And unfortunately with body cameras that are stuck to your chest right here, when you point your weapon out, your hands block most of that footage,” said Sharp.

“So you can’t actually see what’s going on that’s leading the office to make the decision that he’s making.”

Body cameras alone can cost around $1,200 apiece.

Both Belgrade and MSU Police Department tell me, that’s the cheaper part of the equation.

The storage of hours and hours of video is where things start to get very expensive.

Detective Sharp shared his thoughts on the intersection between more police oversight when it comes to body cams and calls to defund the police.

“They want us to invest in technologies to hold police accountable, which most police officers I know are fully in support of technologies like this,” said Sharp.

“While at the same time cutting budgets. So it’s difficult for us to be able to deal with the police movements because of that split request.”

Later in this series, we will hear from racial equity and civil rights advocates about their stance on body-worn cameras on law enforcement officers in Montana.