Overland Park police may get body cameras. And they want to skip the bidding process.

Demonstration of how police body cameras work

This video will demonstrate how Body Worn Cameras are activated when police departments engage with the public.
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This video will demonstrate how Body Worn Cameras are activated when police departments engage with the public.

Overland Park police may soon join the ranks of law enforcement agencies using body cameras.

A city committee will vote Wednesday on whether to approve the police department’s plan to use $430,000 in allocated funds to buy the cameras.

The police department is also seeking approval to skip the bidding process and negotiate a price with WatchGuard, the company that currently supplies dash cameras for Overland Park police vehicles.

The proposal will be heard by the Overland Park Public Safety Committee at 7 p.m. Wednesday night. If it is approved, it will likely be heard by the full city council next week, according to committee chair Paul Lyons.

Lyons said he thinks the request will be approved by the committee.

“It’s a question about transparency,” Lyons said. “There are incidents that happen all around the country and we occasionally run into this in Overland Park where there are citizens that claim that a certain situation happened and we don’t have the body camera footage to show one way or another.”

The police department is asking to skip the bidding process and work directly with WatchGuard because the company already supplies the equipment for Overland Park’s dash cameras, said Police Chief Frank Donchez.

“We wanted something that would integrate with what we already had,” Donchez said.

WatchGuard body cameras will sync with the dash cameras so that whenever an officer activates their emergency lights and sirens their dash camera and body camera will automatically turn on, Donchez said.

While officers will be capable of manually flipping their cameras on and off, Donchez said, there is a policy in place that states whenever officers are interacting with the public their cameras must be on. If an officer turns off their camera they must be able to explain why or face consequences.

Donchez said officers in the department have accepted the idea of integrating body cameras with “open arms.”

”It’s important and necessary not just to our department but I think to the community,” Donchez said. “It’s obviously a transparency issue but it’s also an accountability issue. When I say it’s an accountability issue I’m talking about both sides of the fence. When I say that I mean the citizens as well because what I have found in my experience with in-car cameras is that, by far, they exonerate more officers of wrongdoing than convict officers of wrongdoing.”

Overland Park is one of the last agencies in Johnson County to implement body cameras. Lyons and Donchez said this was because the city was looking to be pragmatic rather than cutting edge.

“We did not feel that we needed to be on the leading edge of implementing the technology,” Lyons said. “We felt that because we’re a relatively safe city that this was not as urgent as it might be for other cities.”

Donchez said that when the technology was new there were still a variety of questions about how to store the video and how it would be governed by open records laws.

”We wanted to kinda sit back and maybe let some other agencies, I’m talking pretty much on a national level but also in this area, let them do some of the trial and error and maybe learn from their mistakes or their issues before we jumped in head first,” Donchez said.

Sheila Albers said she was surprised to learn that Overland Park didn’t already use body cameras when her son was shot and killed by an Overland Park police officer last year.

“There’s a balance that I think every municipality has to strike of not being so cutting edge that you jump on something too soon but not waiting so long that other municipalities are using it to benefit their community and we’re still kinda hanging out waiting,” Albers said.

Albers is a founder and secretary of JoCo United, a citizen group advocating to increase deescalation and mental health training for officers.

The body cameras should be used in combination with those measures, she said.

“They need to engage with the public on what the community sees as a benefit and how experts across the country are using those body cameras to improve public safety,” Albers said.

The Public Safety Committee meeting will be held at 7p.m Wednesday at Overland Park City Hall.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.