Dillingham Police get a body cam upgrade

Feb 5, 2016

DPD Officers say new, user-friendly cameras are making it easier to document their interactions, a practice that for decades was done with only audio recorders. 

Officer Tanner Lowry wears one of DPD's new body cams.
Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG

An independent investigation this week concluded that Kodiak police officers responded “professionally” within the scope of their authority when they pepper sprayed an autistic man September 16 in Kodiak. 

The incident caused uproar this fall, and again last month when Kodiak Police released video footage of the encounter. And it’s one of a slew of recent incidents involving police force that have led many Americans to demand measures like equipping officers with body cams.

Some departments, including Dillingham’s, have already begun to do so voluntarily.

KDLG’s Hannah Colton visited the Dillingham Police Department (DPD) this week to check out how their brand new body cams are working out.

Like so many millenials in workplaces everywhere, Officer Tanner Lowry has been labeled the tech-savvy one, by default. "I’m the younger one, so technology is a little more, you know, my thing," explained Lowry.

So when the Department got a batch of four new wearable video cameras last month, it was Lowry they called on to help get them set up.

“It’s just a flip of the switch. It just takes half a second to turn on," says Lowry. "It vibrates, and there's a little red light on to indicate to me that it’s on.”

The new body cams are a 2.2-oz unit made by the California-based company WOLFCOM.
Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG

The 1.5 x 3-inch camera sits Velcroed onto the center of Lowry’s chest. Sandwiched between a flashlight and a handheld radio, it’s actually one of the smallest things he has strapped on his vest.

And Lowry says the new cameras, at $250 apiece, are much better than the $80-dollar models DPD was using when he got here two years ago.

“They were smaller. They were difficult to understand if they were on or not. They had just the one blinking light, so in the dark it was pitch black and you couldn’t see anything," recalls Lowry. "These new ones come with a light, so you can see pretty well in the night with them. And the camera quality is better.”

Of course, Lowry says, there are still limitations. Since the camera’s on his chest and not, say, attached to a pair of glasses, it’s not going to see what he’s seeing if he turns his head.

But Police Chief Dan Pasquariello says the cameras are a step up from the Department’s long-standing practice of audio-recording.

“We’ve always documented our interviews and our contacts with audio," says Pasquariello. 

In his 24 years with DPD, Pasquariello has seen the technology shift from micro-cassettes to digital audio recorders and finally, a couple years ago, to digital video cameras.

“We decided to get body cameras for the same reason a lot police departments in America are going to body cameras -- to visually document police activity and our interactions with the public," said Pasquariello. "We wanted to reduce complaints, document evidence and record videos of crime scenes.”

TIME Magazine reported last month that nearly a third of the nation’s 18,000 local and state police departments are putting body cameras on their officers. In big cities, like Los Angeles, for example, the transition is expected to take millions of dollars and dozens of new staff to keep up with video storage.

But for a small Department like Dillingham’s, it’s an easy enough task. Each of the eight officers is responsible for offloading his own videos onto an external harddrive at the end of each day.

For Officer Lowry, the 20 minutes of extra work is well worth the peace of mind that comes with having proof of his behavior on the job.

“It’s actually really helpful when you’re in situations and you have someone saying you did something bad, and you’re like ‘I didn’t do that'... then you have something to prove that you didn’t do what they said you did.”

The videos stay in their neatly organized files indefinitely, or until they get handed over to the District Attorney’s office. Asked whether members of the public can request to see the videos, Pasquariello indicated that has not been the Departments practice.

“We just release the video as discovery in criminal cases," says Pasquariello. 

Four of DPD’s officers have been using the new cameras for a couple months now. The other four officers are slated for an upgrade this week. 

Note: This piece originally aired as part of Bristol Bay and Beyond on February 5.