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Police: Body cameras have been game changers

Lieutentant said about 10 incidents of reported excessive force were disproved with video, audio footage in first six months

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Fargo Police Lt. Shane Aberle shows one of the body cameras which police have been using for just over six months. They are worn on an officer's chest.
Barry Amundson / The Forum
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FARGO — Fargo Police Lt. Shane Aberle told the Police Advisory & Oversight Board on Wednesday night, May 11, there have been "numerous incidents" when the department's new body cameras have disproved use of excessive force by officers.

When asked later how many cases, he said probably about 10.

However, he also pointed out in a presentation to the board that the cameras are also a benefit to residents or those arrested to make sure proper procedures are followed.

Aberle described the cameras, which have been used by the department for more than six months, as "life changing."

"I haven't met an officer who hasn't liked the cameras. Most officers are very supportive. It's been amazing," he said.

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Aberle described how the cameras operate and answered questions from the board on the cameras.

Worn on their chests, he said they are used by each officer "every time they leave the station."

The cameras, he said, are the "latest and greatest" version of the Axon Body 3.

He said the Fargo department was one of the first in the nation to have the latest update of the cameras that basically serve as another "human eye" on a situation. They can capture video after dark through a night vision capability.

Although officers have to turn on the cameras, he said Police Chief David Zibolski wanted an option on the cameras that would make sure they turn on "automatically" in certain situations.

Basically, Aberle said, though, they are turned on by officers during every call.

However, he told the board they are automatically turned on for each officer within 200 feet when a taser or gun is pulled out, when a rifle is pulled from the rack or when the squad car lights are activated.

"We think that's one of the greatest features," Aberle said, especially if officers are in a hurry in responding to an incident.

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He said it wouldn't matter if it was two or 10 officers within the 200 foot range.

Aberle said the cameras also have the capability to livestream video to supervisors or at police headquarters in incidents and that they try to notify officers if they are doing so. Also the camera blinks a different color for the officer to see if the livestream option is being used.

The board asked several questions about if the cameras were always used or what would happen if they malfunctioned or the battery life ran out.

Board member Todd Spellerberg said when he rode along with officers during board training that he said it appeared as if the use of the cameras was "ingrained" in the cops.

Aberle emphasized the cameras should be turned on during "every single call," including traffic stops.

When asked by board member Conrad Thomas if there were any "malfunctions" with the cameras, Aberle said it would be very rare. But said there are backup cameras available and officers are instructed to replace the cameras as soon as possible if it happens.

Thomas said "transparency could be lost" if it occurs or if an officer didn't turn on the camera

Aberle responded that if an officer hadn't turned on the camera for several incidents they would be confronted and asked why the camera wasn't deployed.

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Board member Lucrachia King asked what happens if officers were at an extended event when the battery life is 12 hours for the camera.

Aberle said officers have the capability to charge them by the computers in their squad cars or a supervisor or an officer on a new shift could deliver one of the backup cameras.

When asked how long the video and audio is stored, Aberle said for felonies the storage could be up to 15 years or they can be kept permanently.

Aberle also said officers don't have the ability to delete video footage from an incident.

Assistant Police Chief Travis Stefonowicz said after the meeting that they have indeed been a "game-changer" for the department.

He said they are also used as evidence in cases that are heard in court which can help to find out what really may have happened in an incident.

Stefonowicz emphasized, too, that the cameras are a big benefit for residents or those arrested as they can also prove if procedures weren't followed or if there was an issue with use of force.

An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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