Sheriff's Dept. Law and Justice Center

A deputy with the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office works at the security checkpoint on Monday, July 13, 2020, at the Law and Justice Center. 

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Gallatin County sheriff’s deputies could receive body cameras after approval from the county commission during a budget work session on Friday.

Many of the deputies’ vehicles are already mounted with camera systems, but this will be the first time deputies will have body-worn cameras. The Gallatin County Commission approved $152,900 to purchase WatchGuard body cameras, which are made by Motorola Solutions. The intent is to get cameras for every patrol deputy on the street across all divisions.

“It’s good for our law enforcement officers, it’s good for the public,” said commissioner Zach Brown during the budget work session. “It offers more transparency at all angles.”

Friday was the first of two final budget work sessions, with the next scheduled for Aug. 19. The entire final budget has yet to be approved and finalized. During the work sessions commissioners approve or deny budget requests.

The funding for body cameras will be paid for in a couple of ways. A smaller portion — $23,900 — will be paid for in cash. The rest of the funding — $129,000 — would come from property taxes used to fund county operations.

Initial costs of the body cameras could be offset by a Department of Justice grant that the sheriff’s office applied for in late July. Mark Woodard, chief financial officer for the sheriff’s department, said that the grant could potentially pay for 50% of the first year costs for body cameras, depending on how many cameras the sheriff’s office implements in the first year of the grant.

Woodard said that body cameras would have come sooner or later, and that departments across Gallatin County — from the sheriff’s office to the IT department — have come together to make getting cameras doable.

“It’s really nice that Gallatin County is once again trying to be ahead of the eight ball rather than being reactive,” Woodard said.

A March 2021 study from the University of Chicago showed that when body cameras are used, use of force, assault on officers and arrests all decreased. The study also indicates that there is a cost benefit to having body cameras.

Using body cameras could save roughly $1.9 million per every 100,000 people through the reduction of force — both fatal and non-fatal — and complaints filed against law enforcement.

The sheriff’s office does have a policy in place for footage from vehicle cameras, with around 30 vehicles loaded with dash cams. However there is no policy in place yet for body cameras.

The only footage that is kept from dashboard cams is from incidents where people are ticketed or arrested. Sheriff Dan Springer said that the sheriff’s department and the county attorney’s office will work together in hammering out a policy for what kind of body footage is kept and for how long.

The body cameras would integrate with the vehicle cameras, and then send that information to cloud storage. Deputies have to manually move footage from their vehicle cameras to hard storage at the Law and Justice Center.

The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office accounts for over 40% of county hard storage in the county. With the addition of body camera footage, the sheriff’s office would account for double the county’s storage by October. The money approved on Friday would also go to expanding cloud storage for body and vehicle camera footage.

“Right now we have a number of in-vehicle cameras, but that’s all we’ve ever had,” Springer said in an interview. “It’s always been due to storage being the problem.”

With a more robust cloud storage and integrated camera systems, Springer said that the hope is for deputies to be able to use wifi systems to upload footage at the Law and Justice Center and the new Operations and Training Center, rather than manually uploading from a thumb drive or other physical storage device.

“Then you take in all the other aspects of body-worn cameras,” Springer said. “The accountability, the transparency, the evidentiary value of them.”

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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