More than seven years after becoming the first large agency in the state to adopt body cameras for its officers, the Duluth Police Department is capturing “significantly” more footage than anticipated.
It’s a good problem to have, Deputy Chief Laura Marquardt said, as video promotes accountably for officers and civilians, while doubling as a valuable asset in criminal investigations.
But that resource doesn’t come cheap, as the Duluth City Council on Monday signed off on a new five-year, $2.39 million contract with Axon, the company that provides the devices, software, storage and a variety of other tools.
“We’re moving to a system that will allow us to capture all the video we can possibly capture,” Marquardt told the News Tribune this week. “We won’t have any data limits. Right now we have data limits and we far exceed them, significantly. Axon has been very kind to the police department in that area. I think they didn’t fully understand what our needs were going to grow to in the last contract, and we didn’t either.”
Marquardt said storage needs are “five-fold bigger” than what was projected in the department’s last five-year contract with Axon, which took effect in 2017. While the cameras are replaced every 30 months, it’s the server space that accounts for the steepest costs involved in operating the program.
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“We have to keep (footage) for a certain length of time, and that timeline has done nothing but grow,” she said. “The courts have backlogs and COVID has only made that worse. It’s just a lot of data.”
Under Minnesota law, agencies must hold on to footage for 90 days before it can be deleted. But if videos are added to a case file — as most are — they must be retained through the court process, until appeals are fully exhausted. And footage from homicides and sexual assaults need to be held even longer.
Duluth’s last five-year contract with Axon, starting in 2017, came with a price tag of approximately $890,000. Adjusting for more adequate storage space, Marquardt estimated it would cost about $1.3 million just to outfit the department’s 155 sworn officers with cameras and hold on to the necessary footage over the next five years ago.
A Duluth Police Department body camera is pictured March 25, 2015. The department contracts with a company called Axon, which replaces the devices every 30 months and provides all the back-end software needed for video storage. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
But the new contract also includes the replacement of Tasers, also manufactured by Axon, with Marquardt noting that the department’s current stun gun devices are at or beyond their intended lifespan.
Additionally, the deputy chief said officers will gain access to virtual reality training services from the company.
The department has long utilized video simulators to hone de-escalation and use-of-force tactics. But that platform is cumbersome to set up, and Marquardt said most officers are lucky to get one exercise a year.
Soon, on a slow night, a patrol lieutenant could gather officers in any room and spend 15 minutes with virtual reality devices, which allow for interaction from the perspective of officers, witnesses and suspects in practice scenarios.
“It’ll allow us to have a much deeper training exercise, and more frequently,” Marquardt said.
Axon, which rebranded from its original Taser name in 2017, has largely cornered the market on body cameras and a variety of other technologies in the law enforcement field. The St. Louis County Board this month approved a five-year, $790,000 contract with the company for 110 body cameras and related services for sheriff’s office personnel.
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Marquardt noted that Duluth is gaining additional efficiencies with the Axon system, which already incorporates squad car and interview room footage under the same file management system as body cameras.
She said officers will be able to provide a link to citizens to upload photo and video evidence directly to case files, bypassing the hassle of dealing with flash drives, DVDs and email attachments that are too large to be sent. And police can do the same to forward evidence to partner agencies.
Marquardt additionally noted that video, Taser and training data can all be automatically uploaded into the cloud-based storage system, automatically attaching to the appropriate case and officer files, allowing for less paperwork and more time on the streets.
“With a department that’s understaffed, we don’t have the resources that we need to sit there for half an hour every day labeling your body camera videos appropriately so we don’t lose them,” she said. “To not have to do that is very attractive.”