Even After They're Bought, Body Cameras Cost Taxpayers

'Most everybody thinks that these cameras are a huge asset for public safety. '(But) that just creates a cascading group of other problems.'

by Daniel Salazar, The Wichita Eagle / May 31, 2017
TNS/John J. Kim

(TNS) - More and more interactions between law enforcement and the public are being filmed by body-worn cameras.

But public safety agencies are realizing that transparency comes with a price tag: almost $500,000 in new, associated budget requests to Sedgwick County for next year alone.

The district attorney says he needs more help to review video from body cameras to prosecute crime. The district court needs more money to cover fees for public defenders reviewing hours of footage. And the sheriff needs a new computer server to handle all the data it collects in the field, including body camera footage.

Last year, the Wichita, Kan., Police Department completed its purchase of 429 body cameras for its officers, driving much of the spike in footage. And the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office wants to buy 100 more body cameras for its patrol officers in the coming years.

“Most everybody thinks that these cameras are a huge asset for public safety,” said Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Dave Unruh. “(But) that just creates a cascading group of other problems.

“I think it’s a reality that we have to face in this current environment,” he said.

The county’s top law enforcement officials – District Attorney Marc Bennett and Sheriff Jeff Easter – say they appreciate the transparency and accountability that body cameras bring.

“All this technology is fantastic. It makes for better convictions, more integrity in the system, more faith that a conviction means what it says,” Bennett said. “All that is great. But I still have to have the human resources to process it, look at it and evaluate it. “

“It helps us a lot,” he said. “But someone still has to watch all that video.”

‘More than we can handle’

One of the issues with body camera footage is that it needs to be fully reviewed, like any other evidence collected in a criminal case.

“Each one of those videos, you’ve got to watch them in real time,” Bennett said. “There’s no way to review it in a transcript.”

He said the average home burglary case would include two or three videos.

“Every cop who responded to the scene,” Bennett said. “Now, a murder case? You may have 20 or 30 or 40 videos.”

Bennett said his office typically turns over all evidence to defense attorneys during criminal cases “absent it being … a mental health record or something like that.”

“If we’ve got a good case, there’s nothing for us to hide behind. We should give them everything,” Bennett said. “That sounds good until you start having to deal with 429 body cameras.”

He said his office sent 16,485 videos from body cameras to defense attorneys last year. He expects the number to be “exponentially higher” this year since all WPD officers have body-worn cameras the full year.

“So the question is … how do we as a district attorney’s office handle that information?” Bennett asked. “And that is a loaded term: handle it.”

Bennett is asking the county to pay for four part-time crime analysts to review body camera and other video footage. That would cost about $86,608. But he noted the costs are offset by reductions elsewhere in his budget request.

The 2017 county budget, approved last summer, paid for two attorneys to help with the data generated by criminal cases involving body camera footage. That cost about $182,245.

“That’s kept our heads above water,” Bennett said. “(But) this is more than we can handle with just a couple of attorneys.”

‘Unintended consequence’

The sheriff’s office plans to equip all of its patrol deputies with body-worn cameras in the next couple of years – about 100 cameras, Lt. Lin Dehning said. The office now has 21 body cameras for staff in the jail and on patrol.

The office bought a computer server in 2012 to store all its reports, photos, data and videos.

“This is kind of the brains of the sheriff’s office,” Easter said.

But that server is nearing the end of its service. And Easter said the need for a new server would escalate further as the department adds body cameras.

“Once we do that, we do not have the space for a server to capture all of that data,” he said.

A new server would cost $200,000, according to the office’s request.

“It’s not the expense of the cameras,” Easter said. “It’s the expense of all the information that we have to house.”

The 18th District Court says it needs $590,000 to pay attorneys’ fees for criminal defense lawyers.

Some of that increase can be attributed to more body cameras in criminal cases, Sedgwick County District Court Administrator Ellen House said. That’s about $200,000 in the court’s budget request.

“Everyone agrees they are necessary for law enforcement and they are a good thing,” House said. “It also has the unintended consequence of costing us more in attorney fees, because all of those videos have to be reviewed by the defense attorney.

“They may have used to receive a transcript that they were able to peruse and read quickly,” House said. “If somebody was in an interview room for five or six hours, they may have only talked for 20 minutes of that, but the defense attorney has to sit and watch the five or six hours to make sure that nothing happens during that time.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar


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