BELOIT - The Beloit Police Department will roll out body cameras for officers next month, as a plan that's been years in the making nears fruition to boost transparency and accountability in the department.
Beloit police command staff met with members of the media Monday afternoon to give a presentation and demonstration of the body-worn cameras. The department will add 59 cameras to its IT suite, enough for each patrol and command patrol officer member of the department to have their own camera. Over the next two weeks, the cameras will be given to select shift officers, ahead of a full-scale roll out later in February, according to Chief David Zibolski.
The move makes Beloit the first department in the Stateline Area to employ the use of body cameras. Janesville does equip some officers with body cameras, but not every patrol officer has a camera, Zibolski said.
"This is a monumental event for the Beloit Police Department," Zibolski said. "...It's a pretty big event and we're excited to be rolling this out."
The body camera roll out is part of a three-pronged IT redevelopment effort approved in a 2015 $600,000 capital improvement plan for the department. The effort updated in-vehicle cameras and data storage capabilities. The annual cost to maintain the cameras for five years already has been budgeted for, Zibolski said.
Zibolski and other officers said the effort would help improve community interactions with the department and provide more evidence in the event of a crime or complaint against an officer.
"It provides transparency and accountability for the officers," Zibolski said. "Most officers are happy to wear the camera. It helps them in their level of confidence in their job and helps restore the confidence of our community."
Zibolski referenced the death of Rockford Police Officer Jaimie Cox as a recent example where a department could have benefited from additional camera footage of an incident.
"Tragically Officer Cox lost his life in November of 2017, and there's no video of that incident," Zibolski said. "It's tough enough to have an officer die in the line of duty, but to conduct an investigation with really no remaining witnesses makes that process even tougher. We know that we would have coverage that would identify a suspect or clear up questions on an investigation."
The department had cameras from previous administrations, but had been drafting policy and oversight plans with Zibolski, Patrol Captain Dan Risse, Lieutenant Andre Sayles and seven patrol officers overseeing the process. The steering committee ran through various procedural and tactical trials with the cameras, with the department having multiple ways officers can wear the technology: over the shoulder, on safety glasses, and a body mount at chest height.
Each officer will have a camera assigned to them, while cameras will activate when an officer's taser is in the "on" position; while lights or sirens are activated; or when an officer's rifle release lock is triggered or touched. To get better views of incidents, cameras will automatically activate when officers are within 30 to 50 feet of one another.
Cameras will be activated during field interviews, searches, traffic stops and frisks, according to command staff.
The cameras also will be used by school resource officers across the School District of Beloit.
When it comes to schools, they would be activated when a school resource officer (SRO) gets called by a school official or security person to respond to a situation. The district has three school resource officers - one at the high school and two in middle schools.
Body camera footage will be stored by the department for 180 days and comply with all Open Records Law requests. Zibolski said the department supported a recent bill in the state Legislature that would create requirements for law enforcement governing body camera policies and use. The bill also names state and local agencies the custodian of the body camera footage with the ability to oversee the data that would allow departments to deny access to the data.
Critics say the bill would hinder public access to body camera footage, while proponents of the Republican-backed bill say it would protect public privacy and how footage could capture images not for public view.
A public hearing over the bill was held in Madison on Tuesday.