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Iowa DNR rolls out smartphone-based body cameras for conservation officers and park rangers


After years of planning, research and testing, conservation officers and park rangers with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have been outfitted with a body-worn camera and trained how to use it.

The cameras, however, don’t look like a typical body camera. Instead, DNR officers will be carrying smartphones and using an app that enables the phone to act as a body worn camera.

“I think we’re one of the first (agencies) in Iowa to be using this technology,” said Capt. Matt Bruner, a conservation officer with the DNR Law Enforcement Bureau. “Some other fishing and game agencies, and some other sheriff’s offices around the country have been using them. And that’s kind of how we learned about them.”

Bruner said the department had been testing different body-worn cameras models “for several years,” before it eventually settled on the smartphones.

“Each (model) had pros and cons,” he said. “And I think what made our needs so different from other agencies is that we don’t have a central office that our officers can go to every day to charge their cameras and offload the collected footage. Our officers essentially have home offices in their assigned county, so we had to find a way to remotely upload those videos.”

Added accountability

Bruner said the DNR’s decision to implement body-worn cameras was driven mostly by the desire to “come in line with other law enforcement agencies in Iowa and across the country.”

DNR officers do not have in-car cameras or recording devices, Bruner said, so body-worn cameras will be the agency’s “first step toward having the ability to record interactions with the public that we have on a day-to-day basis.”

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Iowa’s conservation officers and state park rangers are state-certified peace officers with full law enforcement authority, Bruner said. Conservation officers also are deputy federal game wardens.

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The conservation officers focus primarily on enforcement and crimes that fall under DNR domain — hunting, fishing and trapping, as well as the operation of boats, ATVs and snowmobiles

State park rangers have that same authority, but focus their efforts inside assigned state park.

“So on any given day, our officers could be out doing compliance checks, they could be working in remote locations, making contact with individuals who are hunting or angling and maybe don’t want to be found. Our officers could also be assisting other agencies or engaged in a traffic stop where the driver is operating in an unsafe manner. So we deal with all aspects of law enforcement.”

Outfitting the officers with body-worn cameras means officers now can record those interactions, which will promote greater transparency and accountability, as well as help the agency address complaints or training needs.

The technology

Officers will be using a Samsung Galaxy S10e that has been equipped with software developed by Visual Labs, the company that created the smartphone-based body camera. The app essentially uses the smartphone’s camera as a body camera.

“When our officers come on duty for that day, they turn on the smartphone and sign into that Visual Labs app,” Bruner said. “Once that app is up and running, the recording feature is manually activated by pushing one of the buttons on the side of the phone. When they are done, the officer just pushes that side button a number of times to deactivate it. It’s really simple to use. Officers don’t have to wake up the phone or enter a pass code to open the phone. Once that app is open, all they have to do is press that side button to activate the camera.”

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But the key to the DNR’s decision to go with the Visual Labs technology lies in the uploading of that footage.

“The Visual Labs system allows for automatic upload from the field and a suite of location-based analytics,” Alex Popof, Visual Labs CEO, said in an emailed response.

“Footage is automatically uploaded to the cloud so that the officer or supervisor can watch videos within minutes on the Visual Labs website. In contrast, a traditional system requires routers and/or docking stations, which upload footage overnight. With Visual Labs, each officer’s real-time location (while on duty) is available for supervisors to view for officer safety, and analytics such as heat-maps and geofences help with operational efficiency and to resolve complaints.”

THE DEAL

The Iowa DNR purchased 120 Samsung Galaxy S10e smartphones via Verizon, according to Popof.

Eighty-four of those cameras were purchased on a two-year contract using DNR Law Enforcement Bureau funds at a cost of $95,800, according to the DNR. Those cameras went to DNR conservation officers.

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The remaining 36 smartphones were purchased on a two-year contract using moneys from the state park bureau fund at a cost of $46,000. Those cameras went to park rangers.

The cost of the smartphones, Bruner said, was significantly lower than that of the body-worn camera devices the agency had previously looked at.

“We were lucky to find an option that was cost-effective and worked for us,” Bruner said.

When to record

According to department policy, officers are required to activate their cameras to record all contacts with citizens made in the performance of official duties.

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That includes: contacts made during investigations; regular compliance checks of anglers, hunters, trappers and other outdoor users; while making arrests; and while responding to calls for service.

Additionally, officers are required to activate their cameras while obtaining consent to search vehicles, vessels, property or people or executing search warrants; while dealing with emotional situations that include yelling, threats, profanity, etc.; when force is used; during pursuits of people, vehicles or vessels; and during traffic stops.

The policy states officers can use their own discretion when it comes to recording “incidental interactions with citizens and telephone calls received from citizens.”

Once the camera is activated, officers are required to continue recording until the conclusion of the interaction.

“If an officer fails to activate the BWC, fails to record the entire contact, or interrupts the recording, the officer shall document why the recording was not made, was interrupted, or was terminated,” the policy states.

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The policy does not specify retention requirements, stating only that “Recordings will be retained according to interaction type, severity of crime, and consistent with County Prosecutors and Department practices, procedures, and retention schedules.”

The policy also dictates that the video footage will not be considered public record. Instead, “recorded video is considered Investigative/Intelligence material. Thus, it is considered as restricted use, non-public, investigative police report information under Iowa Code Chapter 22,” the policy states.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com



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