Sheriff dumps in-car video cameras

Joining colleagues across town, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department last week shut down all in-car video recording systems in patrol cars, citing aging equipment and high replacement costs.

The Sheriff’s Department had been the lone law enforcement agency in Mesa County still utilizing the technology after the Grand Junction Police Department removed cameras from its patrol fleet on Aug. 7, pointing to similar reasons, while drawing fire from Mesa County defense attorneys.

“I anticipate that the decision will be met with criticism by some,” Sheriff Stan Hilkey wrote in a staff memo, which was provided to The Daily Sentinel.

The department’s 32 cameras were disabled on Nov. 1, while warranties on most of the units had already expired, sheriff’s spokeswoman Heather Benjamin said. Estimated replacement cost was pegged at more than $6,000 per unit, she said.

“.. We have estimated that replacing it would be cost prohibitive,” Hilkey’s memo reads. “The vendors will no longer support the current system under warranty, and data storage costs are expected to increase.”

“Certainly they do more good than harm,” Hilkey said in an interview Friday. “It’s a piece of technology that’s useful, but not critical for us, at least in today’s budgetary environment.”

The systems were purchased and installed in October 2006, tapping a law enforcement fund comprised of dollars seized from drug investigations, Benjamin said. Factoring a five-year warranty for each one, the units cost $5,995 apiece in 2006, Benjamin said.

The Sheriff’s Department paid for upgrades in 2010 and 2011, although those costs weren’t available Friday, Benjamin said.

Grand Junction attorney Ed Nugent said the move was “disappointing,” while suggesting more than dollars were at play for the valley’s two largest law enforcement agencies.

“What’s happened is we have certain people, some of them on the Sheriff’s Department, that seem to be very selective about what they choose to record or not record during traffic stops, contrary to the department’s policy, which has been raised in hearings trying to challenge an officer’s conduct during a stop,” Nugent said. “Obviously, they’re trying to remove what they perceive to be a problems area: Where defense attorneys finally have something other than the person charged with a crime saying, ‘This is what the officer did.’ “

He added, “It should be more to their benefit than against them, unless they’re playing close to the line or over the line at times.”

Nugent rejects arguments the systems are too expensive.

“How cost-prohibitive is that?” he asked, holding up his smartphone.

“They’ve been losing cases as a result of some of these videos, especially on DUIs,” Nugent added.

Hilkey, however, says the systems have created “unreasonable” expectations in the courtroom.

“We are finding that if video doesn’t precisely show what a deputy writes in his/her report or testifies to on the stand, the deputy is no longer considered credible,” the memo reads. “Such an assumption is offensive, and it completely ignores the limitations of video cameras with a fixed and very limited line of sight.”

Police Chief John Camper in August echoed the line-of-sight concerns, adding the police department’s cameras toward the end had been experiencing increasing instances of malfunction.

Hilkey said his agency will continue to monitor the “state of the industry” for possible alternatives to in-car video.

“In the meantime, I am simply unable and unwilling to spend large sums of taxpayer dollars, during difficult economic times, on a product with such limited usefulness,” he said.


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