City Hall

Council Interested in Police Body Cameras, Skeptical About Cost Savings

By Erica C. Barnett July 7, 2010

At an hourlong "brown bag" hosted by city council member Bruce Harrell today, two companies that make body cameras for cops made their case to the city council's energy and technology committee this afternoon that their technology would improve police accountability, reduce complaints of police misconduct, and save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs.

The two companies—Taser International and Vievu—had two primary arguments: First, that putting cameras on officers' torsos (Vievu) or their heads (Taser, as seen on two audience members in the photo)—would reduce the number of bogus claims of police misconduct, and second, that it would save the city money in court costs and police overtime for officers who have to appear in court to defend themselves in misconduct cases.

"If you have video documentation, it reduces complaints by 50 percent" because people drop illegitimate complaints, Vievu president Steve Ward told the council. That reduction, Ward said, could save the city $2.7 million in litigation costs (i.e., half of what the city spend on litigation and settlements in 2008) and $853,000 in reductions to the Office of Professional Accountability (i.e., half the OPA's budget). "You're going to save so much money... That's a lot of officers you could hire, so [that] the hiring freeze [at SPD] could [end]," Ward concluded.

Outfitting all SPD officers with cameras would cost somewhere in the range of $600,000.

Although council members seemed generally receptive to the idea of outfitting officers with cameras, after the discussion, several members expressed skepticism about the cost savings the two companies claimed would result from doing so.

"The cost-benefit numbers were a little dubious," council president Richard Conlin said after the meeting. "Even if 50 percent of the complaints were dropped, it's the bigger, more complex ones that drive up costs."

Public safety committee chairman Tim Burgess echoed Conlin's skepticism, saying that while it "may be true" that cameras would save the city money, the potential savings were "certainly not at the magnitude [Ward] suggested. He assumed that all legal settlements are of the same dollar value and they're not—some are $500, some are a couple million dollars. We're not going to save half that money."

Council member Nick Licata said that while he's intrigued by the idea of cameras on cops, the real issue is whether police use them appropriately. "The big problem is police following protocol," Licata said, noting that none of the officers in two high-profile recent cases involving police use of force ever filed a use-of-force report. "In both instances, if a police officer had a body camera on them, I would hope that it would be on, but I could also imagine that it would be off."
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