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Rolla City Council Changes Course And Now Wants Police To Have Body Cameras

A Rolla Police Officer on duty during a June 2020 march. The Rolla City Council has changed course and will now pursue buying body cameras for all officers.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
A Rolla Police Officer on duty during a June 2020 march. The Rolla City Council has changed course and will now pursue buying body cameras for all officers.

ROLLA — Citing the high price tag and a belief that the officers didn’t need to be monitored, the Rolla City Council had left body cameras out of the police budget.

But that changed at last week’s city council meeting when Police Chief Sean Fagan called them “essential equipment” and made the case that the department and officers would be better off if they had them.

“Body cameras are part of best practices,” Fagan said. “I’ve learned that departments that don’t follow best practices when they are capable of doing them, if something happens against the department, it looks very bad. The Department of Justice can come in and start running your department for you if you don’t follow best practices.”

But Fagan said his request had less to do with following what other departments are doing than to do what’s best for the safety of his officers.

“If an officer goes down, even for five seconds, it sends an alarm to our dispatch with their exact location,” Fagan said. “If our officer has to pull out their Taser or God forbid their firearm, it automatically gets turned on.”

While body cameras have received a lot of attention nationally for showing officers using excessive force or violating policy, Fagan said they can also be used to exonerate police who are wrongly accused.

“We keep getting complaints from our citizens saying our officers are saying terrible things to them. Cussing them out. Calling them racial names. I honestly don’t believe it’s happening, and with a body camera, I could easily look and see the whole interaction between the officer and our persons,” Fagan said.

The police chief’s position changed the minds of officials including 3rd Ward Councilman Matt Fridley. He said he didn’t think it was something that protected police officers.

“We keep erring on the side of, and I’m probably going to say something wrong here, but, erring on the side of the criminal. We’re worried about the persons, things that occur. I’m more worried about the police officers going home at night to their families,” Fridley said.

After Fagan’s remarks, Fridley said he didn’t know the full extent of what body cameras could do, and it altered his perception.

“I had to really rethink what I said. After hearing those things from the chief, I’ve changed my mind,” Fridley said.

While a majority of the council now wants to fund body cameras, there is still the issue of finding the $50,000 to purchase the equipment.

Council members asked to use some of the city’s federal coronavirus relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. Mayor Lou Magdits cautioned that while those funds could be used for the first year, the council would have to find another revenue source for following years for maintenance and replacement of the cameras.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.