Proposed body cameras on Michigan conservation officers draw opposition

For many Michigan police departments, turning on a body camera is part of an officer’s daily routine.

The state Department of Natural Resources could be suiting up similarly if a recently introduced House bill is passed.

The bill by state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, would require conservation officers to wear body cameras while working in the field.

Conservation officers are trained and certified under the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards Act and can arrest people who are intoxicated or disorderly.

They can search private property when there is probable cause, with the exception of homes and other dwellings, according to Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

The use of body cameras could reduce use of force incidents and citizen complaints against officers, LaFave said.

“Our DNR officers are frequently in very rural areas,” LaFave said. “They’re all by themselves deep in the woods, and if somebody says that they did something improper, or if they do something improper, we need a clear record of what actually occurred.”

The DNR does not require audio or video equipment for its officers.

The department opposes the bill, said Ed Golder, a public information officer for the agency.

“First, the bill singles out DNR law enforcement officers as being required in statute to wear body cameras,” Golder said. “We believe this discussion should focus broadly on all law enforcement officers, not simply DNR officers.

“We also have concerns with the lack of time to roll out any potential body camera implementation plan or create overall policies regarding use of the cameras,” he said.

LaFave said body cameras are widely used by similar law enforcement agencies.

“I find it very incredibly disturbing that the DNR opposes this legislation, and I find it curious when our state police officers have fully embraced body cameras,” LaFave said. “Our counties have embraced body cameras, with sheriff’s deputies, and our locals have with their police officers and their departments.

“There’s only one agency in the state of Michigan that enforces laws that refuses to wear body cameras, and it’s the DNR,” he said.

From Aug. 22 to Sept. 4, two arrests were made by DNR officers, according to their most recent bi-weekly report.

In the last 10 months, the department has given over 900 citations and assisted with over 150 arrests, according to bi-weekly reports from December 2020 to September 2021.

Most DNR law enforcement included handing out citations for anglers and hunters who violated hunting and fishing regulations.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which represents over 40,000 hunters and anglers and over 200 local clubs in the state, has not taken a position on the bill, according to Amy Trotter, the executive director.

“Besides the policy discussion, the bill represents a significant unfunded mandate,” Golder said.

“There has been no discussion of any separate appropriation bill to provide funds to immediately purchase the camera equipment, pay for training, pay for digital storage space or for additional staff that would be needed to manage everything that lines up with body cameras,” he said. “We do not have available funds or current staff to dedicate to this proposal at this time.”

The bill would not provide the DNR with body camera funding, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis by legislative analyst Emily Smith and fiscal analyst Austin Scott.

The analysis said that increased costs for the department would be possible, but the extent of the potential increase is unclear and would vary by camera.

LaFave said the cost of purchasing body camera equipment would be close to $260,000, with annual maintenance and data storage costs at $87,000 per year.

“It’s really a drop in the bucket compared to how much money this is going to save the state of Michigan and ensure that folks rights aren’t being violated,” LaFave said.

The bill has been referred to the House Military, Veterans and Homeland Security Committee, which LaFave chairs.

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