Aspen police planning for body cameras
After experimenting with body cameras for more than three years, Aspen’s chief of police said he’d like to fully implement the technology next year.
“We’ve taken a cautious approach,” Chief Richard Pryor said. “It’s very apparent that (policing) is going in that direction.”
Pryor said he plans to ask the Aspen City Council for money to buy body cameras in the 2018 budget cycle. Meanwhile, Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn has been looking at different models, though he said he had no estimate of the cost Wednesday. Aspen police officers have had cameras in their cars since 1999.
One of the benefits of body cameras is the measure of transparency they provide, Linn said. A good example of that, he said, was the arrest last month of an uncooperative 31-year-old man who removed four razor blades from his mouth and lunged at an officer with them before being arrested.
In the video — posted on The Aspen Times website — three officers approach Matthew Atwood at about 12:45 a.m. on Feb. 21 at Rubey Park after bus depot security called about his “erratic behavior,” according to the video and an affidavit filed in Pitkin County District Court.
They had contacted Atwood less than two hours before at Local’s Corner, when he assumed a fighting stance and told officers he was a convicted felon when they asked him for identification, the affidavit states. They left him alone after he’d calmed down.
But at Rubey Park, Atwood was on edge again, pacing around and repeatedly accusing the officers of harassing him. Officer Adriano Minniti, who was wearing a body camera that night, took great pains in assuring Atwood the officers are not trying to hassle him but keep receiving complaints about him, according to the video.
Atwood tells them he’s “unstable” and is having a “breakdown,” according to the video. He asks how long he’d be in the Pitkin County Jail if the officers arrested him for disorderly conduct, and one tells him he’ll be out by the morning.
That seems not to satisfy Atwood, who says, “I’ll have to do something more, then.” He then removes four small razor blades from his mouth, pauses a moment, then lunges at Minniti, who immediately draws his gun but does not fire. The two other officers draw Tasers but do not fire them, the video shows.
Atwood then lays on the ground, drops the four razor blades and is arrested.
“Obviously a situation like that is not common at all,” Linn said. “However, we do deal with people in crisis.”
With the razor blades in play, the officers would have been justified in using more forceful measures, he said.
“The officers demonstrated a ton of restraint,” Linn said. In addition to providing transparency, body camera footage is valuable for court cases because the general public now expects video to be available, he said. The footage also can be handy in saving a lot of time investigating complaints logged against officers, too, Linn said.
“I think the handwriting is on the wall,” he said. “Body cameras are destined for most police agencies in this country.”
Officer Dan Davis wears a body camera on his glasses every day and has done so for more than three years. He said he continues to believe body cameras provide benefits to officers, including a valuable reference for writing reports as well as compelling visual evidence for both court and in case of complaints.
For example, Davis said he was dispatched to a call during the Aspen Ideas Festival last year in which a drunken man was trying to open doors in a downtown building with rental apartments. When they arrived, the officers found the man passed out in the hallway and tried to explain to several people staying in the building that it’s common in Aspen for drunk people to forget where they’re staying and rattle doors, Davis said.
One woman, however, blew up at Davis and the other officer, accusing them of making excuses for the man and cursing at them, he said. Normally, they would have simply made sure the drunk man got home safely, but in this case they arrested him for trespassing because the woman made such a big deal, Davis said.
The next morning, an Aspen police sergeant told Davis the woman had filed a complaint about him, alleging she was treated unfairly. Davis told the sergeant to watch the video, which he did and found the officers did nothing wrong, he said.
“It debunked everything she said about (the interaction),” Davis said. “It saved a lot of stress and investigation.
“You go out there and you don’t know what people are going to do. The unfortunate reality is that people will lie.”
The other officer with Davis that night wasn’t wearing a body camera and was grateful for the footage, he said. Also, other Aspen police officers who initially didn’t like the idea of wearing a body camera — some even threatened to quit — are coming around to the idea, Davis said.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo does not like the idea of body cameras and said he thinks the outcry for them that came in the wake of police shootings in places like Ferguson, Missouri, is waning.
“I’m just not hearing as many police agencies saying they need to do this,” he said.
Further, DiSalvo doesn’t like the “gotcha” aspect of resolving citizen complaints against police officers with cameras and thinks officers shouldn’t use body-camera footage to write reports because it dulls their powers of observation.
He said the complaint issue can be handled by hiring quality officers and that if a department receives a lot of complaints, that’s where it should look.
“I’m considering it less now,” DiSalvo said. “We don’t even have cameras in our cars.”
Linn said the Aspen Police Department doesn’t receive many officer-related complaints, either. And while that’s not the department’s motivation behind equipping officers with body cameras, footage can be helpful in confirming an officer’s side of the story, he said.
In addition, video footage allows the public to come to its own conclusions about an incident, Linn said.
“It helps the public understand,” he said. “It’s a more useful way of doing it than just an officer’s report.”
Aspen police officials are still tinkering with how to deploy the cameras, Pryor said. Recent community surveys have asked residents about body cameras, he said, and while they are generally supportive, privacy concerns exist.
The department may finalize a policy that relies on officer discretion to turn on the camera in certain situations, Pryor said.
“That may be the route to go,” he said. “We’re looking at tailoring it to suit our community’s needs.”
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