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NDPD announces use of bodycams, new ND Safe app

The Notre Dame Police Department (NDPD) announced this month that its sworn officers are now wearing body cameras. The department also released the ND Safe app with multiple resources, including one-touch calls to Notre Dame police, St. Joseph County’s 911 center and non-emergency assistance, as well as resources to share location with NDPD or one’s friends.

NDPD chief Keri Kei Shibata says that the decision to start using body cameras has been a long time coming. “We had been thinking about it for a number of years. In fact, we had officers who had been wanting to wear body cameras previous to [the decision],” Shibata said.

Shibata said that the department had held off due to existing safety technology that NDPD already employed.

“We have a number of CCTV cameras on campus, so usually when there’s something that happens, and there’s a question about whether something happened a certain way or not, we can investigate that way. But there’s no audio there. The officers have had in-car cameras with body mics for a very long time,” she said.

They ultimately decided to purchase the technology — developed by Axon Enterprise, a firm that develops technology for law enforcement, the military and general public — for a number of reasons.

“They’re becoming more standard for police agencies. We know that the federal agencies are soon going to be required to wear them. And so it’s just becoming a best practice in law enforcement,” Shibata said.

Shibata also referred to national conversations around police reform. NDPD has engaged in that conversation following the death of George Floyd, releasing an extensive “Equity in Policing” report that outlines a commitment to solidarity and details training and policies for officers. 

“We know that at times law enforcement in the United States has played a role in dehumanization, oppression and the infringement of the basic civil and human rights of people in our country. Instances of police brutality are tragic reminders of the systemic racism that exists in the United States,” the statement reads. “We recognize that NDPD is part of the larger criminal justice system that needs to improve in many ways.”

“These truths are uncomfortable, they stain our history and tarnish the reputation of good people doing good work. But, they are truths that are nonetheless acknowledged by the Notre Dame Police Department.”

Shibata said the bodycams “allow us to be more transparent and accountable. It helps us to quickly investigate any complaints. It helps collect evidence in cases if that’s needed. It can also help with training, so officers can review their interactions and supervisors can review with officers and say, ‘How could we have handled this a little bit differently?’ And then if there are disputes about what happened, it can clarify that.”

She said that current policy dictates officers must turn on their body cams any time they are on a call for service or law enforcement interaction, from someone locking their keys in an office to a more serious threat.

“The spirit of the policy that will always be the case is any kind of law enforcement and action will be recorded,” she said. 

Officers must tell citizens who ask if they’re being recorded that they are, and they can turn off the cameras if they are requested or for privacy reasons, such as offering care to a person potentially in a state of undress. They would document the cause in any case this occurred. In case the situation escalates, they would turn the camera back on.

NDPD exists because of a state law allowing colleges to appoint a police force. Notre Dame’s board decided to do so, giving NDPD jurisdiction throughout St. Joseph County, but primarily on campus, Shibata said.

“In an active violence or other serious public safety emergency NDPD officers know the campus inside and out and can get there quickly and take the right action or give the right instruction to the community and other responding agencies,” she wrote in an email. “In addition, in everyday situations we know the campus resources available to students, faculty, and staff so we often have the ability to connect them with those resources rather than taking law enforcement action if appropriate where other police agencies wouldn’t know the resources in that detail or the people to connect them with.”

With the release of the ND Safe application, the work to ensure safety on campus continues. 

“We’re very excited about [the app],” Shibata said. “We had been thinking about a safety app for quite a while. Student government had asked if that was something that we could do, and it was another thing that just fell together and it seemed like the right time to do it.”

Within the app, users can activate features like the Virtual Walkhome feature, which allows a police dispatcher to monitor their walk to or from a residence hall or other location on or off campus. 

ND Safe has other features including FriendWalk, essentially a safety escort service without a person, designed to share a user’s location with friends or family. There’s also Mobile Blue Light, which shares the user’s location with NDPD. The app also has a feature called Social Escape, a self-scheduled call to the user’s mobile phone as a means to leave an uncomfortable or potentially threatening situation.

“It’s a great resource. I like it that people can choose either to have our staff involved or not, depending on what they feel they need. And then most of the options also enable people to really quickly contact 911 or our police department depending on where they are,” Shibata said.