BILLINGS – In recent years, there’s been a national push to arm police officers across the country with body cameras to record accountability.
The Billings Police Department has become the latest agency in Montana to equip officers with body cameras. It's something officials say they’ve wanted to do for years but just didn’t have the storage capacity and technology.
“The police department, for many years, even since when I first started in 2007, had old VHS camera systems and audio packs,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley.
As of now, he says, audio and video do roll at the front of the patrol car from the dash as well as from the backseat where a prisoner would sit. Audio also rolls on the officer themselves.
But now he says, "there’s a visual impact.”
He says equipping officers with body cams was never a controversial issue in the department. In fact, it remained just the opposite.
“The national narrative has been body cams to put on cops because they're doing stuff wrong,” he said. “You know, that is definitely not the perception that we have. These body cams will far do better for officers, then it will be damaging or create a viral video or catch a bad incident.”
The department has been working for months to get the new body cams online. Officers were then given the cameras to wear a few weeks ago.
Officer Amanda McKnight says so far, she hasn’t fielded any inquiries about the new cameras from the public during traffic stops or investigations. But she knows there will be questions eventually.
“When we're dealing with an investigative scenario or civilian contact, it just provides us with another vantage point of what we're dealing with,” she said.
The department purchased roughly 90 body cams and budgeted $250,000 from Cares Act funding for the devices themselves and all the capacity to store the footage.
However, Wooley says there will be an ongoing expense for the body cams that will have to continually be addressed in the budget as technology constantly evolves.
“Data storage is enormous,” he said.
And here’s another thing to think about: McKnight says the new body cams can’t possibly catch every detail.
“It’s not going to catch 100% of everything we're seeing. Obviously, officers are mobile. We can turn our heads our eyes can move in different directions,” she said.
But when it comes to accountability, she says it helps.
“The more help we get and the more help, they get you to know to make sure that we're doing the right thing but also wearing it so that when we're complained about, or complaints are made, it can validate that we did do the right thing.”