WAFF 48 Investigates: The Cost And Value Of Police Body Cameras

Published: May. 7, 2015 at 6:15 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 11, 2015 at 6:46 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Ferguson...

New York...

North Charleston...

Most recently Baltimore, and even right here in the Tennessee Valley after a settlement was paid out to a man who says Madison County sheriff's deputies beat him following a traffic stop. The investigation into that incident is now in the hands of the FBI.

In Madison, a police officer has been recommended for termination after he body-slammed a grandfather from India. That officer is now facing a federal civil rights violation charge.

Another police officer, this one from Huntsville, was indicted on a civil rights charge after pulling a man from a patrol car and assaulting him. He's also accused of falsifying the incident report filed following the confrontation.

Former Huntsville police officer and current city council member Will Culver says the trend is disturbing.

"What I'm seeing, not just locally but nationally, is that police officers in some cases appear to be going from zero to 100 just instantly," said Culver. "And by passing all the other uses of force that are available."

The Huntsville Police Department does not have body cameras. And Culver wants that to change.

"I'm pushing to get body cameras with all of our police officers," said Culver. "We don't want to wait until something happens".

He has done the research, and so have we. Use of force incidents go down when officers use body cameras. Body cameras also back up or disprove an officer's account of what happened on their shift, no matter how bad the situation.

"There are times officers do have to use deadly force," said Culver. Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson agrees.

"You're seeing what he's confronted with, and hearing what he's confronted with," said Johnson.

Madison County Chief Deputy David Jernigan says in an age when everyone has a camera, getting the best angle of an incident is extremely important.

"Everybody's videoing," said Jernigan. "The problem is, you're going to have videos that might be from down the street, filming an incident. It might be from a second story. It might be an incomplete video and no audio."

But some agencies, especially in towns without much financial cushion, worry about the cost. And we're not just talking about the cost of the cameras: there's the cost of video storage, a backup system and a disaster recovery system.

Then, somebody has to maintain that archive system. After all, investigators will have to be able to find video if an officer's actions are called into question. Some departments create a position and hire someone. Others outsource.

According to our research, the video storage for a small department of less than 100 officers likely run between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. For larger departments, storage costs could run as low as $40,000 a year to as much $2 million - or more.

According to the Associated Press, some cities have found camera providers who also provided storage deals with plans running anywhere from $20 to $100 per officer per month.

Madison County and the City of Athens both use contractors to store the video and manage the video systems. Chief Jernigan tells us their contract is for a four-year period. They paid around $131,000. That was offset by a $42,000 grant from the Department of Justice.

But could the body cameras end up costing the county too much money?

"I don't think so," said Jernigan. "It's almost like you can't afford not to have them."

Both Chief Jernigan and Chief Johnson say video of an incident involving an officer is an invaluable asset to their departments and public.

"I think it protects the officers in a lot of ways," said Johnson. "If I have someone call and tell me what happened, I can go in and look at it and see exactly what did or did not happen." 

"We don't want to hide anything," said Jernigan. "Our policy is when our deputies have contact with the public, that they turn it on.  And I think it will save us money on the long run - somebody that makes an accusation that's just not true. We have it documented."

Councilman Culver says every man and woman sworn to protect and serve should see body cameras as an asset.

"If I were a police officer today, I would certainly want to wear a body cam," said Culver.

The deadline for law enforcement to apply for the body camera pilot program through the feds is June 16th. Departments will also have to show why they need the cameras and the demographics of the department's jurisdiction.

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