The Teton County Sheriff’s Office joined the Jackson Police Department and Grand Teton National Park this month in issuing body cameras to its patrol officers.
Deputies working patrol, along with most jail staff and court security, have begun wearing the cameras within the last month or will soon, Sheriff Jim Whalen said.
“I think there’s an expectation now across the country that police have body cameras,” Whalen said. “We’ve been looking at it for a while, long before the call for them came up nationally, but I think that with what’s been happening nationally it is definitely time we took this step.”
The county purchased the cameras with a $28,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole’s Law Enforcement Support Organization Fund, Whalen said.
The foundation was listening when word got out that the sheriff’s office was seeking body cameras, following a speech local law enforcement made to the Jackson Hole Rotary Club and Whalen’s mention of the desired purchase during the county’s most recent budget hearings.
“I got a call from the foundation, and they said, ‘You know, you have this money here in this fund,’” Whalen said. “It seemed like a great chance to get that taken care of.”
With the approval of Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith, who also has to sign off on use of the fund, Whalen had the money for the body cameras.
“It’s not a trust factor at all,” he said. “As much as anything this is a tool that gives us the ability to show what our deputies are doing right.”
The Jackson Police Department and law enforcement rangers with Grand Teton National Park have used body cameras for several years.
With the sheriff’s office purchase, the Wyoming Highway Patrol is the only law enforcement agency regularly patrolling in Jackson Hole that does not use them.
All four of the agencies use dashboard cameras and have for more than a decade.
In the wake of officer-involved shootings and deaths in towns like Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, more and more law enforcement agencies around the nation are adopting the cameras, which are typically worn on an officer’s shoulder.
The body cameras supplement often unclear dashboard camera footage, and they function even when officers leave their patrol cars behind.
The Sheriff’s Office is drafting the specific policies that will govern deputies’ use of the cameras.
For the time being sheriff’s deputies are generally turning on the cameras whenever they make contact with a member of the public that is likely to result in a police report, Whalen said.
Whenever there is video from a body camera for a specific arrest, that video is downloaded and included with the report, becoming part of the evidence in that case.
“As for our formal policy, that is something we are going back and forth about,” Whalen said.
“Specifically as regards what happens if an officer doesn’t turn on the camera when they should.”
The cameras are especially useful when there is a question about whether an officer followed the correct course of conduct — both to disprove malicious accusations and to support those that have merit.
Whalen said he worries about the possibility of an officer forgetting to have the camera on and whether he should mandate consequences or discipline for failure to turn on the cameras when necessary.
“We don’t want our people to be fearful if they forget to turn them on,” Whalen said. “But then we do want to make sure that if there should be a situation with one of our deputies we have that video. It’s a question we’re struggling with right now.”