The Natrona County Sheriff’s Office is looking to equip deputies with body cameras beginning within the next six months, pending a budget request.
The office requested roughly $35,000 for the body cameras from the Natrona County Commission in its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, along with roughly $93,000 for dashboard camera and Taser replacements.
The office is waiting for the money to be approved before moving ahead with the cameras, but deputies have already tested the cameras they likely will be using. The sheriff’s office would be the last law enforcement entity in the county to adopt the technology. Both Evansville and Mills police officers are equipped with body cameras, and the Casper Police Department outfitted officers earlier this year.
And it’s part of a national trend to make police departments more transparent. Last year, Police Chief Keith McPheeters told the Casper City Council that police are under more scrutiny than ever and that body cameras are a necessary tool to address that scrutiny.
Taylor Courtney, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said the same. He said body cameras have proven useful to other departments and the sheriff’s office would benefit from the technology and would like to implement them soon.
“If the funding does come through, we will put the body cameras in place as soon as possible,” Courtney said.
He said the cameras would make the sheriff’s office more transparent, would be useful as courtroom evidence during criminal cases and would protect both the public and sheriff’s deputies by creating a record of interactions between law enforcement and the community.
“It also is protection for citizens and deputies alike,” he said. “If something’s recorded, it’s easy to show the accuracy of a situation and what happened and what didn’t happen.”
The sheriff’s office has been looking into body cameras for years, Courtney continued, but the costs have been prohibitive until recently.
“A lot of it boiled down to the technology; it has to be something that we can afford to do,” Courtney explained. “I think we’re finally at that merge point where technology and the ability to institute body cameras are finally coming together, at least for us here locally.”
The sheriff’s office plans to purchase 41 Tasers, 31 body cameras and 16 dashboard cameras from the same company. The first year of the equipment would cost roughly $128,000, and the equipment would cost roughly $79,000 each year after.
Deputies began testing body camera models last spring. Every deputy was able to try the body cameras and learn how they worked, Courtney said. The office tested three different companies and ultimately settled on Axon. Axon, formerly Taser International, grew to prominence by supplying the majority of law enforcement agencies in the country with Tasers. A few years ago the company rebranded and began supplying body and dashboard cameras as well.
Axon is a popular company among law enforcement groups, and some of the largest police departments in the U.S. use the company, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
Courtney said the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office chose Axon in part because of how well-integrated the equipment is. When a deputy turns on their patrol car lights, the body and dashboard cameras turn on automatically.
If an officer has his body camera activated, then other officers’ cameras in the same vicinity would be activated automatically.
While much of the public seems to favor officer-worn cameras — national polls put support in the 80-90 percent range — the technology has also had its share of controversy. Worries over personal privacy have led to many states passing laws that exempt body camera footage from public records laws.
Wyoming has its own law — Enrolled Act 89 — on how and when body camera footage can be released to the public. The law mandates disclosure of the recording in three instances: when requested by the subject of the video, when it depicts deadly force or serious bodily injury, and when it is ordered by a court. Footage can also be released to those filing complaints against an officer or if the footage is deemed to be pertinent to public safety.
Other than the above situations, Wyoming gives individual law enforcement agencies discretion on when to release footage and on what grounds.
Other controversies around body cameras have focused on when officers activate their cameras and when they would be able to review the footage from those cameras.
The sheriff’s office does not yet have a policy specific to body camera use. Courtney said the agency will write that policy when it knows for certain the request has been approved. He said the policy would address privacy concerns and questions about when a deputy would be required to activate the camera.
All patrol, resident and civil deputies would wear the body cameras.
The commissioners will have answers for all county department budget requests by early July, Chairman Rob Hendry said. He said the budget will likely be a status quo budget but that it may end up being tight in some spots.
Courtney said the sheriff’s office is hopeful the budget request is approved and they can move forward on the cameras. He said even if the request is approved and they can purchase the equipment, officers would not use them until a formal policy had been approved.