Police Shooting Raises Questions About Body Cameras

Sheriff’s deputies recently started wearing body cameras, while Kalispell police chief remains leery of the technology

By Justin Franz
A Flathead County Sheriff's deputy displays a body-camera. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

As the investigation continues into the shooting of a man by two Kalispell police officers, questions are being raised about whether the officers should have been wearing body cameras.

While all uniformed Flathead County Sheriff’s Office deputies now wear cameras, Kalispell officers do not. Police Chief Roger Nasset said even after this week’s shooting, he has concerns about the new technology.

Body-worn cameras have gained widespread public support nationally in recent years following a series of high-profile police shootings, including the death of a young African American man in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014.

Last year, the sheriff’s office began testing a variety of body-worn cameras that record every interaction a deputy has with the public. A few months ago, every deputy was outfitted with a new body camera and Sheriff Chuck Curry said so far the program has worked well.

“We felt it was a very important thing to do because this protects both the deputies and the citizens,” Curry said. “These cameras provide definitive evidence of what happened during an incident.”

At the end of each shift, the deputy returns to the sheriff’s office and uploads the day’s footage to an internal server. The footage is usually kept for about a month, at which time the server fills up and new film is saved over the old.

But the Kalispell Police Department has been slower to embrace the new technology. Chief Nasset said his officers frequently go inside people’s homes and he is concerned about protecting people’s privacy. He is also worried about the cost of outfitting each officer with a camera, noting that such systems can be expensive. Curry said the sheriff’s office’s current camera system cost more than $30,000, but much of it was covered with grants.

Nasset also said he believes that cameras don’t always tell the entire story and in some cases can offer misleading evidence. He said the cameras he has seen only look straight ahead and don’t always capture what an officer sees.

Kalispell police officers do wear audio recorders, which Nasset says are less intrusive than cameras. However, those audio recorders were not activated when two officers shot a man inside his home on Looking Glass Avenue on Jan. 12. Nasset says the audio recorders are automatically activated when an officer switches on a cruiser’s sirens. However, since the two officers were responding to the report of a suicidal woman, they opted not to activate the sirens. Nasset said the audio can also be activated manually by the officer but that neither officer had a chance to do that inside the home on Looking Glass Avenue.

“Things escalated so rapidly that they did not have an opportunity to turn the audio on,” Nasset said.

According to police, the two officers were inside the home talking with a suicidal woman. During the incident, a 30-year-old man, later identified as Ryan Pengelly, emerged from a backroom with a rifle. Police told the man to drop the weapon. When the man instead pointed the weapon at the officers they opened fire. Pengelly survived and the investigation into the shooting continues.

Despite this week’s shooting, Nasset said he would not rush to outfit officers with cameras, adding that he is waiting to see what the Montana Legislature does. Last year, Rep. Bridget Smith (D-Wolf Point) introduced legislation that would have created a committee to study outfitting officers across the state with body cameras, but the bill was tabled.

Nasset said he stands by his officer’s decision to use force.

“There was no other option here,” he said. “I have zero doubt.”

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