Seized Money Will Help Pay for One City's Police Body Cams

Fort Smith, Ark., Police Department has a $1.8M budget for body cameras, which the police chief says is an "immediate need." A big chunk of the money will come from seized and forfeited property funds.

by Jadyn Watson-Fisher, Times Record / January 8, 2018

(TNS) — The Fort Smith, Ark., Police Department has been approved to use a budgeted $1.8 million on body cameras, new vehicles and other planned equipment purchases.

Nathaniel Clark, police chief, said there is an "immediate need" for the body-worn cameras in a memo to City Administrator Carl Geffken and Finance Director Jennifer Walker.

"Our department must be in line with the ideals of 21st-century policing, including the tenants of transparency and accountability of actions," Clark wrote. "Our department has been behind other departments in this respect for too long."

Tashala Devrow, volunteer Police Department chaplain and House of Restoration church pastor, urged the directors to pass the ordinance, giving examples of when body camera footage helped prove the accounts of both citizens and officers and said. Devrow said the city previously said there weren't the funds to pay for cameras or the storage necessary for the footage, but he said the city "can't afford not to have them."

Clark also asked for six in-car camera systems to go in recently-purchased vehicles and nine newly-requested patrol vehicles. According to the request, officers will have "superior technology" to last for the next five years.

The city board of directors passed the request 7-0 at its Tuesday meeting.

Funding for the cameras will come from the Federal and State Asset Forfeiture fund balances, Walker said. The department will take $203,300 from the Federal Seized and Forfeited Property Balance, leaving $41,300. It will take the other $200,000 from the State Drug Asset Forfeiture Balance, leaving $34,700.

Walker said the reserve funds are not listed in the budget, though she plans on noting what is available in the city's various reserves in the 2019 one, but must be run through the general fund due to its status as an operating fund. The purchase will show up on the financial documents as a revenue and expenditure, giving a "net zero impact."

"This is a great use of this asset forfeiture funds," Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz said. "This is stuff that's been obtained during seizures and criminal activity. This makes much more sense to put these cameras on officers than letting this money sit in a savings account somewhere. I think it'll protect the citizens and the officers."

'Why Not Buy Equipment to Help the Officers That are Here?'

Clark also requested a $1.4 million adjustment to the Police Department's 2018 budget — it will move money from its personnel account to capital funds — due to its employee vacancies and equipment needs, according to a memo from Walker to Geffken.

Walker said if the funds were not spent, there would be a $2 million surplus in the department budget.

There are approximately 21 officer vacancies, Clark told the board. Vice Mayor and At-large Director Kevin Settle asked why the Police Department hasn't been able to fill the positions after requesting last year additional officers. Due to the nature of recruiting, there can be 100 candidates at the start of the process, and the Police Department will end up hiring fewer than 15. Clark said they are looking to hire a few more in the coming weeks.

Settle said he thought if there was a $2 million surplus, it should go toward other areas that have seen cuts in the last several years or toward signing bonuses, like other cities give, as an incentive for hires.

"The main reason they're going down this direction is to address the needs of the Police Department that may not have been addressed in the past several years," Geffken said. He said this is not an annual request.

Ward 2 Director Andre Good said it's not an "either or" situation, and the Police Department needs both personnel and equipment. He also said the Police Department doesn't have access to other sources of funding that some departments may have, and the board needs to prioritize.

Nearly 46 percent of the funds on the purchase request attached to Walker's memo are earmarked for vehicles — nine patrol Tahoes, two animal control trucks and three used mid-size sedans.

The animal control trucks and criminal investigation division's sedans do not sustain the same usage as patrol vehicles, but Clark said they are requiring higher maintenance costs due to high mileage and several of the animal control trucks that are between 15 and 18 years old.

Clark said the motorcycle unit has been successful for traffic enforcement and community outreach and hopes to add a fourth officer to it.

The Police Department also wants to spend around $280,000 on perimeter security fencing to enclose vehicles from the public. Clark's memo indicates no damage has occurred in various incidents with the public, but he wants to prevent the possibility.

Finally, the department plans to purchase 60 police radios for $270,000, a driving simulator and other special response equipment. Ninety-two mobile radios and eight in-car units were approved for purchase in September to upgrade the communication system. The current radios will be considered obsolete by the end of the year.

Lorenz noted that police equipment was the No. 1 priority on the 2019 budget earlier this year and the money being requested is not new.

"This was money that was in the budget for the Police Department in 2018. It was budgeted for the PD, the PD was not able to fill these positions, because it's kind of hard to fill those," Lorenz said. "Those positions are still open, the money was there to pay those officers had they been hired, so why not buy equipment to help the officers that are here and committed to their job currently?"

He noted some officers are driving cars from 2009 with more than 200,000 miles on them.

"We can't do that. If we're going to recruit, a $5,000 bonus isn't going to recruit somebody if you show them a 9-year-old car with 200,000 miles on it and say, 'There's your new car,'" Lorenz said. "This is an appropriate use of this money. Chief Clark isn't asking for new money from somewhere; this is already in the police budget, we're just using unspent funds to purchase something different than what it was originally budgeted for. I have no problem with that."

©2018 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.