Pennington County law enforcement suiting up with body cameras

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Body cameras have been an emerging piece of technology for law enforcement nationwide. For Pennington County, a body-worn camera program will become a reality next summer.

The Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff's Office contributed $300,000 to implement a body camera program. That’s on top of a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The agencies have been considering a body camera program for the past 5 years, and according to Sheriff Kevin Thom, it was all a matter of timing.

"The grant was a kind of catalyst,” Thom said. “There's a significant expense - not just an initial upfront expense, but an ongoing expense. So, having this to help offset that initial cost makes it more feasible."

Lt. Mark Eisenbraun, of the RCPD’s Criminal Investigations Division, said the cameras will reveal the “good work” that officers do every day and will exemplify the “number of highly-trained, professional police officers” within the department.

However, one of the primary benefits will be for evidentiary purposes.

"The more clear evidence you can have of what the officer is witnessing at the time the crime is happening, the more effective the prosecution is going to be,” Eisenbraun said.

Officials also hope that the body cameras will lead to less victimization. Vaughn Vargas, with the Community Advisory Committee, said the program will give the “perpetrator the re-education they need” and demonstrate that foul behavior is unacceptable.

"We have high rates of victimization among Native American, women and the Community Advisory Committee has looked at that,” Vaughn said. “There's a lot of challenges when it comes to getting prosecutions for abuse, and this is a prime example of how we can move forward with that.”

In the state of South Dakota, there's no written policy for body-worn cameras, and it's up to law enforcement to decide on designs and models. Footage will not be available to the public under normal circumstances. Anyone requesting footage would have to go through a formal release process through the courts.

Jennie Clabo, the records and technology manager of the RCPD, said officers and deputies will test the cameras during a pilot program in January that will last through March.

"We have chosen three different companies to go ahead with the pilot program,” Clabo said. “We have taken a small sample of officers and deputies that will each be equipped with these body cameras, and they will transfer through the three manufacturers."

In total, 30 officers and deputies will test the cameras - 10 assigned to each manufacturer. Once a manufacturer is selected, the agencies expect to go completely live with the cameras in June of 2018.

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