Aspen agencies contemplate body cameras

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
Aspen Police Sgt. Dan Davis shows one of the two types of body cameras the Aspen Police Department currently has. One clips to the chest while the other clips to a cap or glasses.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

During the past year, the relationship between police and citizens in the United States has fundamentally changed.

Flashpoints in that relationship have included citizen video of police officers shooting unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and South Carolina. Another occurred in New York City when cellphone video of police using what many thought was excessive violence against a black man surfaced.

“I think without cell phone video, people would have believed the cops,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said.

Those incidents and the mistrust they birthed have given rise to calls urging uniformed police officers to wear body cameras as a way to both curb excessive behavior and also to protect officers from frivolous complaints.

Aspen even has dipped a toe into that well of mistrust, when in February an Aspen police officer took a high school student to the ground at a local bus stop. The incident was captured on cellphones by several nearby students, whose heckles toward the officer were far louder than any community condemnation of the takedown.

Still, the issue of body cameras has trickled into the Aspen and Pitkin County communities. In fact, the Aspen Police Department has been experimenting with body cameras for about two years.

The 2015 Aspen Citizen Survey, which was mailed to 1,750 residents last month, contains four questions about the city’s Police Department, two of which are about body cameras.

The first question notes that the Police Department is considering implementing a body-camera program in which recorded material could be subject to open -records law. It asks residents to rate the impact of such a program on public safety, conflict between police and the community, the “objective evidence of interactions between police officers” and the community, the “approachability of officers” and resident privacy.

The second question asks residents to indicate the strength of their support or opposition to police wearing body cameras.

Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said he doesn’t think body cameras are necessary for his officers because he receives very few complaints about officer behavior — usually fewer than five a year. However, he said he does see a “huge benefit” with body cameras in collecting evidence that can be used in criminal cases.

Still, many issues — including when officers turn cameras on, how long videos are kept and which videos are subject to public release — need to be worked out before they would go into official use, Pryor said.

“There’s a lot of value in body cameras,” he said, noting that Aspen police cars have been equipped with video cameras since 1999. “Whether they are right for here is what we are now trying to figure out.”

Similar to Pryor, DiSalvo also doesn’t think body cameras are appropriate or necessary for his deputies because he receives very few complaints about bad behavior.

“I think an agency of my size can handle that with good hiring practices,” he said. “I know who I’m getting.”

However, if he were in charge of a large department with thousands of officers, DiSalvo said he would be more inclined to use body cameras.

DiSalvo recently was appointed to a state commission overseen by Gov. John Hickenlooper that is charged with coming up with best-use practices for Colorado law enforcement departments that opt to use body cameras. It is not charged with determining whether police should use them, he said.

“I’m open to changing my mind if I think it’s something we could use,” DiSalvo said. Costs of such a program could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The commission includes two police chiefs, two sheriffs, public defenders, members of the Attorney General’s Office, officials from the Department of Corrections, citizens, a member of the NAACP and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU has staked out a leading position on body cameras, calling for all uniformed police officers to wear body cameras and record all interactions in a policy paper released in October 2013. That paper noted that in 2011, police killed six people in Australia, two people in England, six people in Germany and 404 in the United States, and that included statistics from only 750 of 17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies.

However, the group’s most recent update of that paper in March refines its views a bit. For example, crime victims should not have to be recorded, it says. Officers also should not have to record continuously, both because of citizen and officer privacy concerns. It also says that only “flagged” videos would be saved for longer periods of time and that most video should be deleted within weeks.

Aspen Police Sgt. Dan Davis is the agency’s main proponent of body cameras. He has worn a camera on his glasses or hat, or most recently on his chest, for most of the past two years.

He said he thinks body cameras keep both officers and citizens honest.

“I’m more mindful of what I say and do when the camera is on,” Davis said. “And citizens who are aware of the camera are less combative. I’ve seen citizen demeanors change (when they discover they’re being recorded). I think it keeps both parties in check.”

When he first started wearing the camera, Davis said he wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he’d get in Aspen.

“I thought I’d get a lot more negative feedback,” he said. “But I didn’t take into account that people in Aspen are well-read and they understand the benefits to having a camera. I haven’t had anybody say anything negative at all.”

Davis at first required other officers to wear the cameras. He said some officers found them physically annoying, while others didn’t like the idea of Big Brother keeping tabs on them.

While Davis said Aspen’s group of officers is laid-back, is trustworthy and has a good relationship with the public, he thinks it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Do we have a problem in Aspen … and we need them?” Davis said. “No. But it’s that one incident that could happen in your career. If it saves you that one time, … it’s worth it.”

For now, he’s waiting for Pryor to make a decision on body cameras. And Pryor said he’s waiting on the results of the resident survey to make that decision, though if it happens he wants a set of procedures and rules in place before all his officers begin wearing them.

DiSalvo, whose deputies do not have video cameras in their vehicles, said the state body-camera commission will meet once a month for the next five months and then issue a report to the governor in March.