Body Cameras Lose Out to Funding, Other Priorities in Kentucky

State and local law enforcement agencies are putting off the purchase of body-worn cameras for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a lack of funding.

by Emily Porter, The Daily Independent / February 26, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Law enforcement officers in the area won't be outfitted with body-worn cameras any time soon.

The conversation concerning the technology has surged in recent years and while the idea sounds great, it's not realistic for law enforcement agencies in the area to purchase the camera units, let alone maintain them.

The price tag on the units are significant, but beyond that, the cost of continual maintenance and storing footage is greater. That number is around $80 per unit per month, said Ashland Police Chief Todd Kelley. If Kelley wanted to outfit all 52 city police officers with body cameras, it would cost the department $4,160 a month and $49,920 yearly, he said.

“It's a financial struggle,” Kelley said. “We can't afford it.”

Calculate in the added fees for any redacting or analysis of the footage and the number passes the $50 thousand mark. Kelley would prefer to use that sum of money on other priorities.

Kelley said adding an officer to the department to help protect the community would outweigh the purchase of body cameras. Or purchasing a new cruiser and outfitting it with the needed technology, which costs about $50 thousand, just a few dollars more than a year of the body camera program.

A stack of advertisement magazines sits on Kelley's desk. One for new technology another for firearms, ammunition and armor, a forensics magazine and one on training and leadership. Kelley said those come in often and to look and see the equipment is cool, but the realistic side of actually making the purchase is slim.

“You have to weigh in a lot of factors in deciding what you need for the agency,” Kelley said.

Purchases are made based on evaluating what the department absolutely has to have to function, what it needs to be successful and then what it would like to have. First priority is having a trained officer than can respond to scene and the vehicle to get there.

“I have to maintain a level of services,” Kelley said. “I think the people and the services come first, the community rather than some of the technology.”

Ashland Police aren't the only one that aren't able to purchase the cameras. Kentucky State Police and the Boyd County Sheriff's Department are foregoing body cameras as well and cite funding as part of the reasoning.

“It's a funding issue for the agency,” said KSP Public Affairs Officer Michael Murriell.

If the money wasn't the issue, the question of whether the departments are willing to use the technology.

“I know you're probably going to have some police officers who are against body cams because they feel intruded on and that kind of stuff, but in general I don't know that you have officers that are against having body cams,” Murriell said.

Murriell said the body cam can provide protection for both the community and the officers as well as being useful for interview purposes and eliminating false accusations.

Even with the positive possibilities of body cameras on officers there are questions that get raised when these agencies discuss the technology.

First is the issue that the camera provides one angle and can only tell, one part of the story. The second is how the footage is governed under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

“Now the flip side of the body cam is it does take a small window of what's going on,” Murriell said. “You don't see everything that's actually transpiring.”

Sheriff Bobby Jack Woods said cameras aren't perceptive. They don't have the instincts that officers have.

“It might record voices, (but) they don't record peoples emotions” Woods said. “They record straight ahead...they don't record everything going on.”

When it comes to using them for evidence, cameras can help tell the story, but only one portion from one angle.

The next concern is about open records and how much and when the footage is available to the public.

The Kentucky Open Records Act gives citizens a right to view government records, with some exceptions such as information that could invade privacy, is used for scientific research, or could harm an agency if revealed. A full list of exemptions are in Kentucky Revised Statute 61.878.

While the footage is said to be covered, many organizations such as law enforcement are asking for clarification and specific language that will determine when and what footage is released.

Victim interviews, juveniles and innocent bystander are on the minds of the police administrators when it comes to releasing footage and how they need to be protected.

“The in-car camera has a different protection on it,” Kelley said. “Impaired driving, those kind of activities are protected under discovery laws as evidence, so they aren't just readily available to ask to see them.”

Kelley cited DUI arrests and the tests administered to those thought to be under the influence.

“Kentucky law protects the in-car mobile based on what its used for,” Kelley said. “It has a different protection.”

Ashland Police officers have the dashboard cameras and a camera on their conducted energy weapon, also known by the brand name Taser, that record when the weapon is activated that is downloaded and used in court.

Kelley said he already has valuable tools to record the officer and questioned how much more he needed.

Kentucky State Police Post 14 has six cruisers with dashboard cameras. The Boyd County Sheriff's Department has no cameras and isn't planning on buying any, but would reconsider if language was introduced clarifying the availability.

“There's just a lot of factors that come in for me not to do it at this point,” Woods said.

Those factors being the cost, unclear language on availability and how long footage has to be stored.

Beyond the factors, the need for the body cameras isn't prevalent in the area.

“Some of these other departments where they have problems with integrity, I understand it,” Woods said. “In this community, it hasn't been a problem, we haven't had a problem with it.”

Murriell agreed saying the area has a greater respect for law enforcement, but wouldn't deny cameras based on that because it is an added cover.

Kelley had similar thoughts. One aspect for him to decide on the need for such equipment is the relationship with the community.

“I think your trust and open dialogue and good communication would be critical in the decision making process.

All three men said transparency and communication with the community and the department are key in not just deciding on using cameras, but being a successful law enforcement agency.

Though administrators are open to the discussing the possibility, there won't be law enforcement officers with body-worn cameras on the streets of NEKY in the near future, it's too expensive for the tight budgets they're working with.

©2018 The Daily Independent (Ashland, Ky.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.