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Body Cameras: Balancing Privacy & Transparency

Screenshot from a Burlington police officer's body camera recording

Dubuque police will soon buy body cameras for the entire department. This month, the US Justice Department awarded the city a $61,000 grant to buy the cameras and other equipment, plus develop a comprehensive policy about using them.
On today's WVIK News Focus, Michelle O'Neill reports many officers and prosecutors like bodycams; they help protect the public and police. And the recordings can be used as evidence.

Dubuque Police Lieutenant, Scott Baxter, says several years ago, his department bought body worn cameras to equip two special units: community policing and school resource officers. Recordings from their bodycams are automatically uploaded when they're at the police station. One of the biggest challenges will be to store and catalog the recordings, and ongoing associated costs.

Credit Dubuque Police Department
Dubuque Police Department
Close-up of a body camera

Lieutenant Baxter is thrilled Dubuque won the federal grant to buy 120 body cameras. It would have taken much longer if the city had to pay for them. He also says they are just one tool in law enforcement's toolbox, and they don't replace the experience of an officer.  


Young, Assistant US Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, agrees with Baxter, saying bodycams and recordings have limitations. He says it's troubling that people give them too much weight and draw conclusions without having all the evidence from an investigation.

Iowa is one of 30 states considering new laws about bodycams, including whether they should be required. Currently, police departments and other agencies decide on a case-by-case basis what's released to the public. For example, in January, 2014, a Burlington police officer shot and killed a woman during a domestic call involving a dog and a man carrying a child.

The Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation only released 12 seconds of the officer's bodycam video (below), leaving many questions unanswered. The DCI refused requests from the Burlington Hawkeye newspaper and the woman's family for more of the recording and other evidence. The Hawkeye reports confidentiality is the reason for the denial.

Credit Dubuque Police Department
Dubuque Police Department

Assistant US Attorney Steve Young says law enforcement agencies have to balance privacy rights with the public's right to know, based on Iowa's open records law. He thinks most police departments err on the side of openness and believe its positive.

The newspaper and family have both filed complaints with the Iowa Public Information Board which has not yet made a decision. Lieutenant Baxter's goal is to have the Dubuque Police Department fully equipped with body cameras in 2017.

Officially, Michelle's title is WVIK News Editor. She does everything there is to do in the newsroom and whatever may be needed around the radio station.
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