Without body cameras, Iowa State Patrol is an outlier among Iowa law enforcement.
State Patrol lags behind roughly 100 Iowa law enforcement agencies that already have body cameras, shown to reduce use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints against police
Iowa State Patrol troopers, who stop more than 150,000 motorists a year, provide security at the state Capitol and staff high-profile events including RAGBRAI, don’t wear body cameras.
The deficiency was obvious after an April 8 protest at the Capitol when troopers arrested a Black high school student on allegations she assaulted an officer.
Although there were many troopers present at the protest, none of them got video of the alleged assault. And in a bystander cellphone video made public afterward, the alleged crime — a push to the trooper’s elbow — is just off screen.
“We saw the whole thing,” said Angelina Ramirez, a Coe College student who organized the rally against “back the blue” legislation that increased qualified immunity for law enforcement officers and raised the penalties for rioting. Senate File 342 was signed into law earlier this month.
“It literally looked like they accidentally bumped arms,” Ramirez said about the contact between Josie Mulvihill, of Des Moines, and Trooper Dylan Hernandez at the Capitol. “It escalated when he arrested her and threw her to the ground.”
Mulvihill, a 2021 Norwalk High School graduate, is scheduled for a non-jury trial Aug. 16 on the serious misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to one year in jail.
The State Patrol also did not have body camera video of the April 9 fatal shooting of State Patrol Sgt. Jim Smith during a standoff in Grundy Center. Other agencies that responded to the incident do have body cameras, but have declined to make video public during the pending criminal case of Michael Thomas Lang, charged with first-degree murder.
Body cameras, recording devices officers wear on their uniforms to document what they see and hear on the job, were used by about half U.S. law enforcement agencies in 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice reported in 2018.
About 90% of more than 200 Iowa law enforcement agencies that responded to a survey last fall about body camera use said their agencies had the cameras.
The survey was part of the “In Focus” series by the Iowa Newspaper Association and more than 30 Iowa newspapers, that examines the use of police body cameras and access to police video in Iowa. This is the third article in that series.
Iowa law enforcement officers told In Focus reporters they like body cameras because citizens behave better if they know their actions are being recorded. Studies show use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints against officers drop dramatically when officers are wearing cameras. Video enhances criminal prosecution of cases and now is expected by many juries, prosecutors said.
So why has the Iowa State Patrol not adopted them?
“When it comes to body worn cameras, it’s not as simple as buying the actual BWCs,” Sgt. Alex Dinkla wrote in an email response. “The BWCs themselves are somewhat affordable. (But) the infrastructure to support them is expensive and complicated.”
The State Patrol’s 360 troopers -- of which 267 are assigned solely to road duty -- work across the state and had in-car dashboard cameras installed in the 1990s and audio recorders on their uniforms. But adding body video cameras would require a mobile router in each squad car for downloading video, Dinkla said.
“Our troopers report to work from their residence, some live two hours from a district office and having a Wi-Fi option is the only alternative to be able to download these videos,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, connectivity throughout the entire state in rural areas is still not 100%. Finally, there will be the increased storage of the added video as we already support our in-car video systems.”
Dinkla and Debbie McClung, the Iowa Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about potential plans to purchase body cameras.
But when reporters filed an open records request for any documents concerning use of body cameras by the State Patrol, McClung provided a budget request for fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2023 asking the Iowa Legislature to approve $3.55 million to equip all troopers with body cameras.
“Continuing without the addition of a body worn camera is irresponsible when considering both the expectations of our society as well as the safety and security of our state troopers and those they serve,” states the budget narrative, which includes the name of Col. Nathan Fulk, the State Patrol chief, as submitter.
The narrative says the technology State Patrol uses to record audio is “limited and subject to interference and often results in inaudible recordings.”
By adding body cameras, “transparency with citizens will be improved, liability will be reduced and the professionalism our state troopers strive to embody each and every day will be amplified,” the narrative states.
The request was prepared in October. McClung said the proposal was submitted to Gov. Kim Reynolds’s staff as a request for fiscal 2023. The Department of Public Safety chose not to present the request to a committee during the 2021 legislative session, she said.
Fulk did not return an email seeking information about the proposal.
The State Patrol got an estimate for $2.55 million from Sierra Wireless, a Canadian company that provides, among other services, secure connections from law enforcement vehicles. The largest line items are $336,500 for 400 body cameras, $547,000 for 400 vehicle routers, $187,000 for body camera software licensing and $183,000 for 800 vehicle antennae.
Another email provided through the records request shows a $320,000 estimate for data storage equipment.
The Des Moines Police Department spent $1.6 million in 2017 to outfit about 300 officers with body cameras.
Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, who chairs the Iowa House Public Safety Committee, said he hadn’t seen the request but generally favors law enforcement using body cameras.
“I’m supportive of the funding to go toward body cameras,” he said. “It is a valuable tool for the officers, the community.”
Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, who worked for the Newton Police Department for 24 years, said he would have liked to have his interactions with the public recorded but his agency didn’t get body cameras until after he retired in 2017.
“Nine times out of 10, the camera will help the officer to the extent that what they’re saying, what they’re doing, is what happened,” he said.
Klein said he would like to see the policies State Patrol puts in place regarding when video must be recorded and whether and when the public can access the video.
The In Focus review found nearly half the 200 agencies that responded to last fall’s survey identified video as a public record, but many chiefs and sheriffs have declined to release video, even in closed investigations and even when the person shown in the video wants it to be public.
Iowa Department of Corrections Director Beth Skinner has said her agency will expand use of body cameras at Iowa’s nine prisons after two offenders at the Anamosa State Penitentiary were accused of bludgeoning to death a correctional officer and a nurse March 23.
Before the attack, only some staff at the Anamosa prison and the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison have worn cameras, but with some of the $10 million in discretionary money provided by the Iowa Legislature, the Corrections Department will provide body cameras to staff in specific positions at all nine institutions, spokesman Cord Overton said.
Cameras not activated
Body-worn camera recordings can be key in situations where the core facts of what occurred are in dispute. But cameras don’t help if officers don’t turn them on.
In the widely-publicized arrest last year of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea May Sahouri — who was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts while she was reporting on racial justice protests — Sahouri said she was complying with police orders, but a police officer alleged that she tried to pull away from the officer with the help of her boyfriend.
The officer had not activated his body camera in violation of his department’s policies.
That camera model is constantly recording so that when an officer presses the record button the previous 30 seconds of footage is retained. The department had the capability to recover the video footage of Sahouri’s arrest from the officer’s camera later but didn’t.
A jury acquitted Sahouri of the charges in March.
Most police department and sheriff’s office policies instruct their officers when to activate their body-worn cameras, according to the In Focus review. Often, officers are instructed to record all of their interactions with the public unless there are privacy concerns, such as recording inside a person’s home. Few, if any, agency policies in Iowa spell out repercussions for officers who don’t turn on their cameras when they should.
New technology would remove some of that discretion — with cameras activating as soon as emergency lights turn on, a gun is drawn or a Taser is powered up. A new system by Axon has the capability to livestream the officer’s interaction with supervisors or dispatch staff, which could provide backup or a second opinion in fraught moment, the Washington Post reported.
Last July, a Shenandoah police officer who pursued a man on a bicycle and allegedly struck the man with the side of his patrol vehicle to end the chase failed to activate his body camera to record the arrest.
“The officer did not have time to initiate his camera as the arrest occurred very quickly once he exited his vehicle,” Shenandoah Assistant Police Chief Thomas Johnson said in response to a request for video of the incident.
The arrested man, Toby James Pritchett, 26, of Shenandoah, told In Focus he was knocked from his bicycle, which was run over by the patrol vehicle, and that the officer tackled him and pressed his knees into Pritchett’s neck and back.
“I kept telling him, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” Pritchett said. “I almost started blacking out because he had his knee on my neck.”
Officer Dustin Terry resigned four days later.
Without body camera video, Pritchett's claims about how he was detained on the ground would be difficult to substantiate. The patrol vehicle’s camera recorded part of the incident, but the department declined to release the video because, Johnson said, the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy is investigating. The academy handles the certifications and decertification of Iowa officers.
Johnson also said his department’s internal investigation “could lead to criminal charges.” The department has declined to release further details of what led to Terry’s resignation.
If Iowa lawmakers want agencies to use body cameras, they could do what seven other states — Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Carolina — have done by requiring law enforcement agencies to equip officers with the cameras.
Most of the laws came after May 2020, when protests flared across the country over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police Department custody, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported.
Ramirez, the Coe student who worked as a legislative aide to state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said without video recordings Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin may not have been convicted in Floyd’s death.
Another reason she supports the State Patrol adding body cameras is because it would set the record straight when there are questions about what happens at future protests. Her group has been accused of “rioting” at the state Capitol, when it had a permit for the event and, besides Mulvihill’s arrest, there were no other criminal charges or property damage.
“Body camera footage, especially in a place like the Capitol where protests occur, is important to show this is what is true this is what is false,” she said. “Be able to protect those protesters from disinformation.”
This project is a collaboration of members of the Iowa Newspaper Association and includes reporting from 51 newspaper reporters from 30 newspapers across the state. Readers who have experienced difficulty obtaining police video in Iowa can contact reporters at PoliceVideoTips@inanews.com. Public records requests and data storage/visualization was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.