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Behind The Blue Line

Police departments grapple with body camera costs

Nova Safo Apr 22, 2015
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In light of recent high profile police use-of-force headlines, form Ferguson to New York, to North Charleston, there’s been a lot of talk of arming police officers with body cameras.

President Barack Obama this past December proposed spending hundreds of millions to equip police departments.

But the costs don’t just end at the initial expense of buying cameras. Police departments that are already using the devices, from trials to full implementation, report that maintaining and managing volumes of video data is the bigger cost.

There seems to be little doubt among police executives on the merits of the cameras, according to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that provides research and support to police chiefs. PERF reports that many police chiefs think the cameras make a measurable difference in reducing complaints against officers.

Mary D. Powers, 92, of Chicago can attest to the benefits of introducing cameras in policing. Powers first became a thorn on the Chicago police department’s side more than 45 years ago.

“In the early days, people thought you were a kook if you were talking about police brutality,” Powers says.

Still, Powers and those in her now-disbanded watchdog group Citizens Alert, successfully fought to get cameras installed in Chicago’s police interrogation rooms. Powers says many commanders reported reductions in abusive interrogation tactics — tactics such as the ones that this month led the city of Chicago to pay reparations to victims of former commander Jon Burge. Burge oversaw a program of police torture of suspects using tactics such as electric shock and mock executions to elicit confessions. 

Powers says public attitudes have changed, and quickly, with the mass availability of cheap smartphone cameras that have captured the kinds of abuse she used to report one flier and public meeting at a time.

“The public is certainly a lot more aware,” Powers says, and more “acknowledging that some of these things do happen, which was unpatriotic to admit that in the old days. You were questioning your government.”

Powers is in favor of police body cameras, saying the devices represent the next step in the evolution of police transparency and accountability.

A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that conducts research for law enforcement chiefs, found that many chiefs agree with Powers. In many departments that already use them, police executives report body cameras correlate to a noticeable drop in complaints against officers.

“Certainly there are chiefs who see the potential here,” says Brian Jackson, a researcher with the Rand Corporation’s Center on Quality Policing. But Jackson says implementing cameras worn on uniforms comes with a whole host of questions, and policy and budget considerations, which all still have to be worked out.

For example, “deciding when they have to be turned on,” says Jackson, “And when you’re a department who’s … taking video a good chunk of every day, the amount of that data just adds up very fast.”

Storing all of that data, according to the PERF survey, costs departments more than the cameras themselves. The survey found that 39 percent of police executives cite cost as the primary reason for not implementing body cameras at their departments.

In Baltimore, the city’s mayor initially vetoed a body camera bill because of the costs. A city-wide program to furnish cameras to officers would cost between $5.5 million and $7.9 million annually. The city is now considering a limited trial program.  

But other departments see clear benefits that outweigh the costs.

“If the purpose is to use those cameras to get at the truth: what happened between an officer and a citizen … how can you not afford … to outfit your officers?” asks Michael Wagers, the chief operating officer of the Seattle Police Department.

His department plans to spend $2 million on 1,000 cameras. He is now testing a system to automatically redact the videos those cameras will produce, and upload them all on YouTube. The idea is to reduce manpower costs and allow access to the videos, which will be blurred and without sound. The YouTube videos will be used as an index, from which people can then request specific segments of video.

The idea is to have people request minutes, not hours, of tape, which workers would then sift through, redact any sensitive information (such as children’s identities) that they are legally required to, and release the clear versions of the videos to the public.

Right now, the Seattle Police Department already has its own channel on YouTube, with some experimental videos uploaded. Wagers says the hope is to eventually blur the videos less. He’s employing volunteer coders to figure out how to do that, perhaps only automatically blurring faces, in the near future. As they are now, the videos are fuzzy and unclear.

Wagers was recently invited to a White House meeting held with a number of law enforcement experts, to discuss body cameras and the various issues involved with their implementation. 

Longtime police watchdog Mary Powers applauds Seattle’s attempts, but she’s underwhelmed by their project.

“It doesn’t seem to be all that practical, but I think it’s wonderful that they have the intent of sharing all this information, making it available. Why not?” Powers says.

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