While local governments across the country have begun outfitting their police with body cameras in response to violent incidents involving officers, Prairie Village is not likely to join the trend.
Police Chief Tim Schwartzkopf and Capt. Byron Roberson on Monday laid out the pros and cons of body cameras to the City Council, saying that while the cameras can improve relations with the public, the technology is expensive and there are unresolved questions about privacy and how the systems should be used.
“It’s not the silver bullet,” Schwartzkopf said. “It’s a very good tool, but it’s not something to go into carelessly. A lot of thought needs to go into it.”
Police have used body cameras for several years. In fact, Schwartzkopf said the department’s two motorcycle units and its tactical response team have used body cameras for the last two years.
But departments are feeling pressure to use the devices in the wake of a string of fatal police encounters in places like Ferguson, Mo.; New York City; Baltimore and North Charleston, S.C. In those cases, either no video footage of the incident existed — pitting officers against witnesses — or cellphone video taken by bystanders contradicted official police reports.
Roberson said body cameras can help officers record evidence that can be shown in court, lead to greater accountability and transparency, reduce police use of force and citizen complaints and generally improve the behavior of officers and citizens.
“If you know you’re on tape sometimes you just do things right, do things better,” Roberson said.
However, he said the cameras pose a number of operational problems. For instance, someone filmed on the street has no expectation of privacy, but what about a person filmed in their own home? Also, the footage would likely fall under the state’s Open Records Act and be publicly available.
In addition, the department would have to decide if the cameras are always on — which could complicate talking with crime victims — or leave it to the officers’ discretion. Leaving it up to the officer could lead to a public perception of selective use or even guilt if an officer forgot to turn on the camera during an encounter that went bad.
There’s also the price tag to equip more than 30 officers. Schwartzkopf estimated the cameras would cost between $800 and $1,200 per officer with an additional $300 to $500 a year per officer storing their digital video footage on remote computer servers. He said it’s unknown how much it would cost to oversee the program or how long the department would need to retain the footage, perhaps for months or years.
“I think the expectation is once you start the program you can’t go back,” he said.
The council appeared lukewarm to the idea with Councilman Eric Mikkelson saying he felt there’s currently a “high level of community trust” in the police department.
“I’m sure there’s an incident every now and then where this could be helpful, but I don’t see a compelling need for this yet in Prairie Village,” Mikkelson said.
David Twiddy: firstname.lastname@example.org