Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Shane Freiburger looks over a new body camera that he and other employees received training on recently at the Dubuque County Emergency Responder Training Facility.

Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department deputies soon will hit the road with a new piece of technology that authorities hope will increase transparency and accountability.

The department recently purchased and is in the process of testing about 100 body-worn cameras to be used by nearly 90 deputies and county jail and courthouse security staff.

Dubuque County received a more-than-$57,000 federal grant matched with department funds to cover the roughly $119,000 cost to purchase all associated equipment and necessary software and storage.

“No. 1, we wanted to help gain that critical evidence that sometimes we’re missing when we don’t have these cameras,” Sheriff Joe Kennedy said. “Second of all, we want to help with transparency with the public. We want our officers to know, and we want the public to know, that we do care about what the officers are doing when they’re out there.”

Cameras have been issued to two road patrol deputies and three jailers on each shift, along with one courthouse security officer and drug task force members, as part of a limited release before a full rollout in mid-January.

A Telegraph Herald investigation of body camera footage recorded by Dubuque police hours before Alex Billmeyer, 29, died while in custody at the Dubuque County Jail, showed that he had asked to go to a hospital while he was being booked. However, when an officer asked if Billmeyer would like to lie down, the footage appears to show him saying, “Yeah.”

Billmeyer later was found unresponsive in his cell. An autopsy concluded his death was accidental, caused by “methamphetamine intoxication.”

“Our officers, although it wasn’t seen on video, followed our jail protocols when dealing with that subject,” Kennedy said. “It’s always a teaching moment any time you have a tragic situation like that.”

Growing use across the nation, tri-state area

A growing number of law enforcement agencies across the nation and tri-state area have equipped officers with body-worn cameras.

The devices have gone from rare to ubiquitous. More than one-third of all law enforcement across the country now use body-worn cameras and nearly 47% of agencies intend to adopt their use, according to the Associated Press.

Studies conducted of U.S. law enforcement agencies since 2013 have found that officers with body-worn cameras were more productive in terms of making arrests. They also had fewer complaints lodged against them relative to officers without body-worn cameras, and had higher numbers of citizen complaints resolved in their favor, according to a 2018 review of research by the U.S. Department of Justice.

However, more information is needed on how and whether use of cameras has lead to better training, policies, prosecution and investigations of officer-involved shootings or other critical incidents, according the DOJ.

Platteville police have utilized some form of body cameras since late 2013. Officers currently use camera-equipped smartphones that automatically upload footage to a cloud server, Platteville police Lt. Jeff Haas said.

Dubuque Police Department began outfitting every officer with a body-worn camera in late 2016.

“(Officers) don’t want to go out there in today’s environment and have their actions judged without people having the whole side of the story,” said Dubuque police Lt. Joe Messerich. “While it doesn’t show everything the officer’s seeing or feeling at the time, it does provide some level of an independent witness.”

And when complaints are lodged, camera footage has led to faster resolution of excessive use of force and other misconduct complaints.

“A lot of times the person withdraws the complaint, or if it’s substantiated, we bring it up with the officer and correct it that way,” Haas said.

Messerich said cameras also provide corroborating evidence to document probable cause for arrests, determine appropriate charges and increase the accuracy of officer’s reports.

But, like with any piece of technology, there are limitations.

The cameras are fixed and do not show where an officer is looking at any particular moment.

“An officer under stress might get tunnel vision, focusing on what their perceived threat is. They might miss all sorts of other things out there the camera is picking up on,” Messerich said. “Use-of-force situations are tense and rapidly evolving, and when we judge it we shouldn’t be judging it with perfect 20/20 hindsight. And the cameras kind of give the tendency to want to do that.”

Use, storage and retention

As for the use, retention and dissemination of body-cam footage, the Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department mirrored the Dubuque Police Department’s body-cam policy.

The policy states video captured by body-worn cameras may be considered “investigative material” and therefore exempt from disclosure under state law, but it may be provided to the public at the discretion of the chief deputy in consultation with the county attorney.

Cameras will be required to be activated for all traffic stops, arrests, prisoner transports, vehicle searches, physical or verbal confrontations, use of force, domestic violence calls, field sobriety testing and OWI investigations.

The policy makes exceptions when activating a camera would be unsafe. It also makes exceptions for witnesses or victims who do not wish to be recorded, discussions of tactics and recording confidential informants.

Footage would be stored for four months before being burned onto a Blu-ray backup and retained as evidence for five years, unless part of an open investigation.

Police in Galena and Stockton, Ill., as well as Fennimore, Wis., and Asbury, Iowa, use cameras. Sheriff’s departments in Jackson County, Iowa, and Jo Daviess County, Ill., do as well. “It’s a tool. It’s not going to give you every answer every time,” Messerich said. “We’re happy we have them ... but (the public needs) to keep their limitations in perspective.”