TRAVERSE CITY — Deputies from the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department will soon join their city police counterparts in wearing body cameras.
The county commission unanimously approved the measure to purchase the body cams on Wednesday at a cost of $85,000 for the first year and $50,000 for four subsequent years from AXON, a company that specializes in police body cameras.
Sheriff Tom Bensley said the body cams will be manually turned on for every interaction between a deputy and a member of the public. He sees them as technology that can actually help law enforcement officers.
“We’re OK with this,” Bensley said. “The prosecutor (Noelle Moeggenberg) is very excited about having body cams for her county prosecutions. She thinks they will greatly assist her in prosecutions of some cases.”
The cameras will provide more evidence and more information, Bensley said.
“It’s an evolving thing,” he said. “A lot of police departments throughout the country have them.”
The Traverse City Police Department purchased body cameras last year.
“I think this is going to be a good thing for the force and a good thing for the community,” said Commissioner Bryce Hundley.
The Sheriff’s Department will get 70 cameras that all deputies will wear, plus some backup cameras, that will be replaced with new cameras in 2.5 years. AXON will provide training for the cameras, which will be delivered in 35-40 days.
They’ll be paid for under the first year of the contract from the county’s capital improvement fund, with funds likely coming out of the Sheriff’s Department budget in future years, said county Administrator Nate Alger.
The county will also apply for a grant from the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority, which has approved grants for body cams for other agencies.
Undersheriff Michael Shea said he welcomes the body cams.
“It goes without saying it’s a tough time to be a cop right now,” Shea said. “As much security as this is for the general public, it is for the police officer as well. I speak for myself, but I wouldn’t want to be a cop without them today.”
In June about a dozen members of E3, a local anti-racism task force, spoke at a commission meeting in support of mandatory body cams for road patrol officers as part of law enforcement reforms the group would like to see enacted. The group has been meeting regularly with Bensley and others since then.
“At this point we are extremely relieved,” said Brett Sinclair, council coordinator for E3. “It’s a bit of fresh air after nearly a year of facilitating this conversation and working with the sheriff’s office. We are passionately and diligently looking forward to our next steps.”
E3 also received an anonymous donation of $30,000 that it pledged to give toward the purchase of the cameras. Sinclair said since the cameras were paid for by the county, E3 will now explore how best to use the donation moving forward.
Sinclair said he does not know if E3 will continue to work with the department.
“It would be greatly unfortunate if the conversation stopped here,” Sinclair said.
Commissioner Ron Clous asked Bensley to clarify that body cams were already in the works for the department before members of E3 made their demands.
“I wanted to ask you, it wasn’t our public commenters demanding body cameras that got us to this point where we have body cameras,” Clous said. “Was it something that ... was in your plan?”
Information from the department says that a committee to research body cams was formed in June.
Bensley said the department went through a very deliberate process that included researching body cams worn by other departments, putting in place policies and procedures on their use, and doing a trial run of two brands of cameras before sending out requests for proposals.
A policy put in place by the Sheriff’s Department said that the cameras are to be manually turned on and off by the deputies.
The deputy does have some discretion, and safety comes before the priority of activating the camera, Bensley said.
“If the situation arises where the officer is in danger he takes care of himself and the public first. The camera comes second.”
There are options where the cameras can be set up to automatically turn on when the police vehicle’s siren or overhead lights are activated, when the vehicle is going more than 80 miles per hour or an officer exits the vehicle.
Bensley said one of the concerns he had is that the technology could fail and the camera is not activated.
“We feel that if it doesn’t work in some situations we’ll be criticized, but it’s technology and it’s not guaranteed,” he said.
Commission Chairman Rob Hentschel asked if the camera could be turned off if requested by a citizen.
“The concern that comes to mind is that over the past several years there have been multiple people who ended up in jail based on my informing police officers of activity,” Hentschel said. “I’m a business owner. I run into stuff. Do I, as an informant, want to be on camera?”
Shea said Hentschel certainly could make the request.
“That is up to the police officer to determine whether they can articulate why they deactivated that camera for that purpose,” Shea said.