Money, Storage Primary Obstacles in Police Body Camera Implementation

The initial cost of the cameras are only the tip of the iceberg for municipalities; often the steepest costs come from storage fees.

by Jason Kotowski, The Bakersfield Californian / March 7, 2016
A Ferguson, Mo., police officer wears a body camera while responding to a call about a possible theft from a residence. David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS

(TNS) -- The largest law enforcement agencies in Kern County, Calif., are in agreement that body-worn cameras would provide a valuable service for officers and the general public.

But there are two obstacles: Money and storage.

There are the initial camera costs, with each camera running about $1,000, but the storage costs are where the real expense comes in.

According to a recent Time article online, nearly a third of the 18,000 state and local police departments in the U.S. are purchasing body-cameras for their officers. That number is only expected to grow, and even local agencies say it’s likely just a matter of time before they’re also using body-cameras.

And departments in larger cities, the article says, can generate more than 10,000 hours of video a week, requiring some agencies to turn to cloud-based high-volume storage facilities. Storing that much data comes at a steep price.

The New Orleans Police Department, according to the article, plans to pay $1.2 million for body-cameras, with much of the cost going toward storage.

And those costs don’t reflect the time and work necessary to review the footage to see what portions can be released to the public.

Kern County sheriff’s Sgt. Ian Chandler said the body-cameras used by deputies under his command in Wasco can shoot in either 720p or 1080p resolution. If shot in 1080p, about twice as much data is being stored in the system.

Deputies download their cameras at the end of their shift, and that information is kept in the server for a minimum of 13 months. A portion of the video can be redacted from either the beginning or the end of the footage, but otherwise it cannot be edited, Chandler said.

All the footage is downloaded and can be called up if needed. But what’s usually reviewed is footage used in investigations and that can assist the District Attorney’s office in a prosecution. Also reviewed is any footage involving a citizen complaint about deputy behavior.

Bakersfield police Sgt. Gary Carruesco said body-cameras are discussed every budget cycle but none have been purchased yet. He said Chief Greg Williamson isn’t opposed to them, but understands there is “going to be a lot to look at” before they’re implemented.

“It really comes down to the money aspect,” Carruesco said.

The cameras the department has looked into cost anywhere from $400 to $1,000. Carruesco said about 200 officers who interact with the public, including patrol, gang officers and police service technicians, would need the cameras.

Using the $1,000 number, that’s a total of $200,000 to purchase a camera for each officer interacting with the public.

The storage of data for those cameras costs even more. Carruesco said it would cost about $100 a month in storage costs for each camera.

With 200 cameras, that adds up to $20,000 a month — or $240,000 a year — in storage costs. Between the purchasing and storage costs, the BPD would be spending about $440,000 in its first year of using body-cameras, plus an additional $240,000 every year afterward.

And that figure doesn’t include maintenance or replacement costs.

“The cost outweighs the benefit in a monetary sense, but in the sense of transparency it’s a no-brainer,” Carruesco said.

Officer Robert Rodriguez, spokesman for the Bakersfield California Highway Patrol office, said there’s no doubt the CHP will eventually have body-cameras, but he doesn’t believe it will be anytime soon. He said securing funding and researching the best product will take time.

Pros and cons

Many outside law enforcement, in light of controversial cases from Ferguson to Freddie Gray, have also argued for body-cameras to help ensure police act appropriately. Some believe body-cameras are more likely to stop officers from using what they believe to be excessive force in making an arrest or dealing with a situation where a suspect is exhibiting unusual behavior.

Six Baltimore police officers are charged with criminal offenses in the death of 25-year-old Gray, who suffered a fatal neck injury April 12 while inside a police van. He died a week later.

The Baltimore Sun published a column by Dan Rodricks last year arguing that, in a post-Freddie Gray world, there is “the potential of police body cameras to influence behavior and provide a video record that resolves complaints” in light of the “raw resentment” some people feel toward law enforcement.

Bakersfield defense attorney Michael C. Lukehart described the cameras as a mixed blessing.

“I think almost all police officers acting in good faith would welcome a record of what they do to save them from unwarranted criticism,” Lukehart said.

The general public would be surprised if all the interactions involved in normal police work were reported, he said. For example, upper middle class residents would be surprised at how rough police can act in some of their duties, while those living under different conditions more hostile to police would be shocked at how well officers perform their jobs.

Each person has his or her own preconceived notions about police, and seeing the reality of their work would likely have a strong impact on those notions, the attorney said.

Lukehart said one concern he has is that officers, realizing all their actions are being recorded, could be inhibited from doing some of the things they need to do. With all the recent criticism against police, officers may be tempted to avoid getting into a situation where they also might be criticized or become the subject of a lawsuit.

Cameras in Wasco

Wasco deputies began wearing body-cameras in April of last year in a pilot project. The city paid $895 each for 18 cameras from WatchGuard.

The results have been “very positive,” Chandler said Tuesday.

While several weeks remain until the numbers are officially tallied, Chandler said citizen complaints have decreased. He said there have been several instances where people came to the substation to file a complaint, but upon watching footage taken from a body-camera admitted they were mistaken in how they remembered what occurred.

The cameras also make Chandler’s job easier in evaluating the work of deputies. He can see firsthand how they interact with the public.

“I can’t be here all the time, but with the body-worn camera I can be,” Chandler said.

The cameras are to be turned on whenever a deputy is engaged in a call for service. When the call is over, it’s turned off until the next call.

Unlike agencies that spend thousands of dollars a month in storage costs, Chandler is able to store all the substation’s data in-house. As a supervisor with just 16 sworn staff, the footage they accrue can be stored on a dedicated server with eight terabytes.

While they’ve proven economical with the relatively few deputies in Wasco, providing cameras to each of the estimated 500 patrol deputies or other Sheriff’s Office personnel who contact the public would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in purchasing and storage.

“It’s extremely expensive and still relatively new technology for law enforcement,” Chandler said.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he wishes the county had the money to put body-cameras on all deputies. He said the cameras bring out the best behavior in everyone, from the deputy to the person he or she is questioning.

“The video is beneficial to us more than it is to anybody else,” Youngblood said. “Even if it’s negative, it’s beneficial. Then we can address a training issue.”

©2016 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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