Why two police departments stopped using body cameras

About a third of the nation's 18,000 police agencies are either testing body cameras or have embraced them. But police in Indiana and Connecticut suspended their body camera programs citing high video-storage costs.

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
A body camera is attached to the uniform of Whitestown Police Department officer Reggie Thomas during a traffic stop, in Whitestown, Ind. in 2015. Police departments in at least two states are shelving the body cameras they outfitted their officers with, blaming the formidable costs of storing the video.

Police departments in at least two states that outfitted their officers with body cameras have now shelved them, blaming new laws requiring videos to be stored longer, which they say would significantly increase the cost.

About a third of the nation's 18,000 police agencies are either testing body cameras or have embraced them to record their officers' interactions with the public. But departments in Indiana and Connecticut suspended their programs this year after their states imposed considerably longer video-storage rules.

Clarksville, a southern Indiana town just north of Louisville, Kentucky, began using body cameras in 2012 for its 50 full-time officers and 25 reservists. That program ended in late June when Chief Mark Palmer pulled the cameras in response to Indiana's new law requiring agencies using the cameras to store the videos for at least 190 days.

Palmer said his department's video storage and camera maintenance costs had been between $5,000 and $10,000 a year under its 30-day video storage policy. But the new law that took effect July 1 would have raised those costs to $50,000 to $100,000 for the first year, he said, by requiring videos to be stored more than six times longer.

Palmer said the department would have had to buy new servers and may have had to buy new cameras and software and to train someone to use it, and that although the cost would have been lower in subsequent years, it still would have been high.

"This has really hit us hard. That's not the kind of thing we budgeted for when we set this year's budget in place," Palmer said of his department in the Ohio River community of about 20,000 residents.

The adjacent city of Jeffersonville also shelved its 70 officers' cameras for the same reasons, and other Indiana police agencies have delayed committing to the cameras while they monitor the new law's impact.

Palmer said he's working with Jeffersonville police on ways they might be able to resume their programs by holding down costs by sharing equipment with other agencies.

Civil rights activists have long called for police officers to wear body cameras, and even more so since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the national American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, acknowledged that costs of operating body camera programs can be daunting. But he said he's concerned that some departments might use the costs "as a cover" to avoid the added layer of oversight the cameras bring.

"There could be good reasons for a community not to adopt body cameras, but a police department's desire to escape accountability is not one of them," Stanley said.

Looming higher video storage costs were also the reason the Berlin, Conn., police department ended its body camera program this year after testing eight body cameras that had rotated among its 42 officers, said Chief Paul Fitzgerald. His department followed the Connecticut state librarian's suggestion to retain video for 60 days, and longer in instances involving ongoing investigations or citizen complaints.

But Fitzgerald shelved the cameras in January in response to new state standards approved late last year. Those standards, which a Connecticut law directed a state board to draft, require all body camera videos to be stored for at least 90 days — and for at least four years if they're deemed evidentiary.

"Everybody's trying to maintain budgets and that becomes very difficult," Fitzgerald said. "It's the long term costs, of unfunded mandates."

At least eight states — Indiana, Oregon, Illinois, Nevada, California, New Hampshire, Nebraska and Georgia — have laws spelling out how long police departments must preserve the footage the cameras capture, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Police departments typically have to buy new servers or pay for a cloud service to store the videos. And additional staffers often need to be hired to handle public records requests, manage videos that must be stored for long durations and redact videos to blur the faces of minors or otherwise protect privacy.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, whose Michigan department covers Detroit's northern suburbs, said he won't equip his 900 officers with the cameras largely because his department's startup costs for the cameras and storing the resulting videos for just 30 days would amount to more than $1 million a year.

"For body cams it's a deal-breaker. I won't implement them," he said.

Medium-sized police departments, those with between about 50 and 250 officers, appear to be facing the biggest challenges with video storage because they often don't have enough space on servers or hard drives for their considerable data storage needs, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

Small police departments and large metropolitan departments seem to be having an easier time managing their body camera costs, he said. And in a decade, Wexler predicts, departments without the cameras affixed to officers' uniforms will be rare and competition among vendors will mean the videos will be cheaper to store.

"That's going to be a good thing for the field," he said.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported many officers have supported calls for transparency, but for a growing number of the rank-and-file, privacy is becoming an issue of both personal safety and basic employment rights. Such constant scrutiny can be both unnerving and unnecessary, many say.

Last month, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, representing 1,500 city cops, sued city administrators and sought to block a pilot program that would have assigned body cameras to 100 officers. At first, the program asked officers to volunteer for the program. When none did, however, the department said it would randomly assign officers to wear the clip-on cams, slated to start this week.

Like a number of unions over the past year, the Boston association said the city’s plan violated the collective bargaining agreement. More significantly, perhaps, it also said body cameras put its officers at risk.

“[The] damage to the collectively-bargained arbitration process and the increased risk of harm to officers from the City’s unilateral action constitute irreparable harm and that only injunctive relief can provide a remedy,” the union said in a statement. Citing a Rand Corp. study, it also said that “officers wearing body cameras are no less likely to use force but are 15 percent more likely to be assaulted than officers without cameras.”

On Friday, a judge denied the Boston police union's request to halt the pilot body camera program. It will begin on Monday.

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