Aspen ahead of police-camera curve |

Aspen ahead of police-camera curve

File photograph of a Newark, N.J., police officer displaying how a body cam is worn.
AP Photo

Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn was at a conference years ago when he heard from an officer who had bought his own body camera. Footage from that camera, which the officer was not required to wear, ended up exonerating him from a potentially career-ending complaint.

“(The footage) showed both sides of the interaction and saved his job,” Linn said.

Years of testing out cameras and programs has put Aspen Police Department ahead of the game. With Senate Bill 217 going into effect July 1, Aspen police officers have had plenty of time to adjust to the use of cameras and work out flaws.

SB 217, or the Police Integrity Transparency and Accountability Act, was signed into law in June 2020 following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the protests that followed. The bill requires all law-enforcement officers who interact with the public to be outfitted with body-worn cameras.

In 2011, Linn said, an Aspen officer brought in a proposal to buy professional body-worn cameras from a company, the same company the department still uses cameras from to this day.

“He was a firm believer in it, and he talked us into buying four (cameras),” Linn said. “We had them as a tool for officers to use on calls, but it wasn’t in any sense mandated. We recommended it for certain types of calls — domestic-violence situations or sexual assaults, things where there’s a lot of evidence and a lot of intensity, a lot of things going on at once, and you don’t want to lose details.”

In 2016, Axon, a company that makes body-worn cameras for law-enforcement officers, created a promotion that he said they couldn’t say “No” to. As a demonstration, the company offered free cameras to any police department in the country for a year. Aspen Police Department jumped on this offer, and, when they moved to their new station in 2018, they distributed to cameras to every officer.

The program was met with a little resistance from the officers, and Linn feels it was understandably so.

“If your boss were to come to you and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to record everything you do today.’ How would you feel about it?” he said. “The thought of having my supervisor looking over my shoulder all day long wouldn’t feel great.”

However, it didn’t take long for officers to realize the cameras are for their own protection as much as for the public’s. Linn said he can only remember three instances when the cameras hurt the officers but can’t even come close to counting the number of times it protected the officers from misleading, or even malicious, complaints.

“I think it’s really good we are documenting what we do because it’s important for us that we be fair and do the right thing. As long as we’re doing the right thing, those recordings only help us,” he said.

Snowmass Village Police Department (SVPD) has taken a different approach to body-worn cameras but is seeing similar results as the Aspen Police Department.

SVPD debuted their body-worn camera program in November 2022. Police Chief Brian Olson said he delayed implementing a camera program because he was hoping better technology would come out.

“I really wanted that technology to be more prolific amongst all the camera makers, so that we’re not wearing a clunky garage-door control on our chests,” he said.

Currently, all 10 officers in SVPD have been assigned cameras. That also includes two community-response officers, who do everything from traffic control to trail enforcement to dealing with wildlife reports.

“Everybody’s embraced (the program),” said Olson. “I think everyone appreciates the video back-up to what their day looks like.”

When an officer activates their patrol-vehicle’s lights, the camera will automatically begin recording. However, there are some instances when officers are responsible for turning on the camera themselves.

“That’s a little bit of a learning curve, but everyone’s getting the handle of it,” Olson said.

Implementing a body-camera program does come with a bit of management, he added. He estimated that, in one day, an officer could have a dozen recordings that need to be sorted and categorized.

How the department treats the footage depends on what kind of contact the officer has with the public. Footage with arrests or information about crime investigations that could potentially end up in court may need to be kept permanently, but footage with officers helping a motorist stuck in the snow can be deleted after a few months.

The three new SVPD cars also are fitted with cameras, and the rest of the new cars, which they are set to get in 2025, will be outfitted with cameras, as well. This is not the first time SVPD cars have experimented with cameras. Olson said that, about 10 years ago, the department went through a period with car cameras.

“Back then, we had to put DVDs into the camera system in the car every day. It was not optimal, so we ended up getting rid of that system,” he said.

Other sheriff’s offices and police departments in the valley have implemented body-worn camera programs ahead of SB 217.

Basalt Police Department (BPD) has had a body-worn camera program in place since 2019.

“Prior to going into service, each uniformed member will be responsible for making sure that the
member is equipped with a portable recorder issued by the department, and that the recorder is
in good working order,” the BPD Policy manual states.

The manual also states officers must wear the camera in a conspicuous manner, or they must notify persons they are being recorded whenever reasonable.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office has body cameras for each officer and each vehicle. They began their program in 2021.

As of Oct. 1, 2022, the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office requires all patrol deputies and investigators to wear cameras while on active duty.

“I think the camera footage continues to show that Snowmass officers conduct themselves in the best, most helpful, and compassionate way possible. I don’t think anyone had to change their behavior,” said Olson.


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