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West Valley City prepping all its officers for body cameras

Department becomes 4th in S.L. County to equip its force

WEST VALLEY CITY — On Monday, every officer in the West Valley City Police Department will hit the streets equipped with a body camera.

Lee Russo said when he took over as chief of the department in August of 2013, getting body cameras was a top priority. After testing the different brands of cameras for about eight months and getting "creative" with his budget, Russo was able to purchase 190 cameras for his officers.

The contract with Taser Axon Flex cost about $1.1 million and includes the equipment plus five years of data storage at the company's headquarters located outside of Utah.

"I think it highlights it as a priority for us. Given the challenges that we're facing across the nation right now as a profession, I think there is a public demand and I think there is also a professional demand for this technology. It's going to help everyone," Russo said.

"I think this is a great benefit for our department. I think we're going to find it will really help our communities understand what police officers are doing, what they're faced with. I think it will raise confidence on both sides of the camera," he added.

West Valley City becomes the fourth police department in Salt Lake County to equip all its officers with a body camera.

Salt Lake City and Draper police were among the first Utah agencies to use them. Murray police also have equipped every officer with a body camera. West Jordan police have outfitted about 16 of their officers with cameras but were still experimenting with different brands as of Wednesday before deciding which to purchase.

Sandy, South Jordan, South Salt Lake, Cottonwood Heights and Unified police departments are still testing equipment and reviewing proposed policies on how the cameras will be used. While all those departments expect to eventually use body cameras, many officials have said the biggest hurdles are concerns over funding and data storage.

For the past two weeks, West Valley officers have been summoned to the department's substation, 3100 S. 5315 West, to undergo a training session and to be issued their body camera.

The training includes not only how to use the devices but the officers are also educated about the department's policies on how and when to use them.

West Valley police will use body cameras that are positioned at the side of an officer's head either by attaching them to glasses or an ear piece. The cameras will constantly be rolling video on a 30-second loop. But as soon as an officer is dispatched to a call or has any official interaction with a citizen, they will hit a button attached to their belts to make the cameras record.

"That way if something dynamic happens, unexpected happens (or) takes the officer off-guard, the camera is already rolling," Russo said.

"Soon as we're going into a call of any nature, we're going to turn it on," said officer Wade Wright who has been wearing a body camera for about two weeks.

So far, Wright said the reaction he has received from the public has been positive. The hardest part has simply been the learning curve and remembering to turn it on.

"I've been on traffic for quite a few years and made a lot of stops. You do it in a certain, particular way each time. And now you've got to add that one extra step to make sure you turn it on, make sure that it is on. So the biggest thing is just remembering, I think, and getting it into the motion of what you do throughout the day," concurred officer Matt Madsen, a member of the department's Motor Squad division.

Both Madsen and Wright said they like having the cameras — not just for the public's reassurance, but also for the protection it gives officers.

"I've been an officer for seven years and I've had some complaints that came through, and it kind of surprised me. I was like, 'That's not how it happened.' That's going to help us a lot on that. It's going to show the public what exactly happened. There's not going to be any questions. It is how it is on the video. We cannot change that. We cannot edit it in any way," Madsen said.

As for the head-mounted camera as opposed to body cameras that attach to an officer's chest or shoulder, West Valley police say they like the perspective the video brings because it shows the public what the officer is seeing.

"When you put it on the head, … what the officer sees, the camera is most likely picking up," Russo said.

Wright said he recently was looking for a suspect vehicle while driving and the camera picked up what he was looking at.

"Whereas if it were on my chest, all you would have seen are my hands on the steering wheel," he said.

Russo said the cameras are another step in the department's continuing efforts to be transparent. He said in high-profile incidents, like officer-involved shootings, he will likely release body camera video as fast as possible — whether it shows the officer's actions in a favorable or negative light — in order to help the public understand what happened and minimize rumors from spreading.

While the chief notes that the cameras are not a replacement for an officer's integrity, he believes they will show that 98 percent of the time officers act appropriately in situations.

Police body cameras have become a hot topic of discussion in Utah in recent months due to several high-profile officer-involved shootings. Fatal shootings in Draper, West Jordan, and two involving Salt Lake police officers were all captured on body camera video. The shootings in each case were ruled justified, partly because of the video.

Russo said West Valley police video that is determined to be inconsequential will be stored for 30 days and then erased. Any video that can be used as evidence as part of an ongoing investigation can be stored indefinitely, he said.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

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