Kent County Sheriff’s Department getting $2.2M for bodycams

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Resisted by some officers when they first came out, body-worn cameras have become an accepted tool of the trade.

“I think it was the unknown more than anything. Everybody’s just used to them. You’re recorded 24/7 no matter what you do,” said Kent County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ryan Wheeler.

Wheeler is president of the deputies’ union and part of the pilot program for implementing the body cameras.

“Once it’s on… you don’t even realize you have it on,” Wheeler said.

The Kent County Board of Commissioners on Thursday approved spending $2.2 million, so the Kent County Sheriff’s Department could equip some 200 staff members with body cameras.

It’s part of a package that will also replace the department’s in-car camera systems for all 83 cruisers, Tasers, five cameras for the detective bureau’s interview room, 25 docking stations and an annual $75,000 service contract for the second through fifth years the bodycams are in use.

Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said she plans to have the bodycams in use by January. A pilot program has helped her department develop policy on its use.

“Even just the perception that it makes us more transparent is important to me,” LaJoye-Young said.

“The Board of Commissioners strongly supports Sheriff LaJoye-Young’s commitment to transparency, accountability and effective law enforcement practices,” Board of Commissioners Chair Mandy Bolter said in a statement. “Kent County’s commitment to excellence in public safety services is a priority to me.”

The sheriff’s department will soon be the second-largest police agency in Kent County to use body-worn cameras.

The Grand Rapids Police Department also uses them.

A pilot program was about more than getting deputies to use to the cameras.

It helped write the police for their use, answering a question like when does it come on?

“An officer is supposed to have it on when they’re making direct citizens contact,” LaJoye Young said.

Under the policy, it has to stay on during the entire exchange.

The cameras automatically turned on when the patrol cars emergency lights are activated, a Taser is pulled or the patrol vehicle hits a certain speed.

But what’s to keep a deputy from simply turning it off?

“That would be a disciplinary offense to have an officer turn it off in the context that they’re supposed to have it on,” said LaJoye-Young.

A video that might violate a member of the public’s privacy will be redacted before being released under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The video will be stored in the cloud by Axon, the same company that sold GRPD its bodycams.

The length of time it’s stored depends on the crime and where’s it at in the court system.

Encounters like traffic stops will be deleted in 30 to 60 days.

LaJoye Young says the department used best practices from other agencies to write the policy.

Those example policies included input from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the sheriff’s department did not reach out to them directly for their policy.

“We can definitely benefit from examples that are already out there in the field,” LaJoye Young said.

But will it reduce complaints against deputies?

“Often, what it is individuals are complaining about is that they don’t like the answer they got from the deputy. Frankly, most of the time, that doesn’t change,” LaJoye-Young said.

The answer may also depend on the complaint.

GRPD has had body cameras since 2015.

According to their records, the number of Class One complaints— those involving accusations of civil rights or criminal violations on the part of officers — and Class 2 complaints — serious accusations that fall short of being a civil rights or criminal violation — have remained steady from 94 in 2015 to 108 last year.

But Class 3 complaints, like an officer being discourteous, have decreased from 238 in 2015 to 74 last year.

While they can’t attribute the decrease solely to body cameras, GRPD tells us they do believe they are a factor.

LaJoye-Young says the cameras may not cut down on complaints.

“But it will help us investigate the complaints that we do get and give clarity for all sides,” LaJoye-Young said.

A number of other police agencies in Kent County are looking at the same system, which will integrate with the sheriff’s department’s on shared calls for service.

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