When will Kansas City police join the 21st century and finally get body cameras?

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.

When it comes to wearing body cameras, Kansas City police are increasingly out of the picture — and falling further behind the times.

The Overland Park Police Department is on its way to becoming the latest area law enforcement agency to put body cameras on its police officers. The City Council voted Monday night to equip the city’s 200 uniformed officers with cameras and make more of them available for checkout by other department personnel.

The move has long been contemplated and the $750,000 long budgeted, officials say: up to $430,000 for the cameras and $320,000 for storage to keep videos for at least 90 days.

Body cameras might have shed more light on numerous high-profile cases, including the controversial Overland Park police shooting of a 17-year-old who the department said was driving his car at an officer. Body cameras might also have given invaluable context, beyond a bystander’s cellphone video, of a distressing May 24 arrest by Kansas City police and their use of force against an African American misdemeanor suspect.

In many cases, such context would only serve to place an officer in a positive light, Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez says, adding that if officers conduct themselves professionally, there’s no reason to oppose body cameras. Donchez says everyone in his department that he’s spoken with is in favor of the cameras.

Likewise, says a Kansas City police officer, “We are 100% for it.”

“Increased trust with the community is something that is very important to us,” says department spokesman Jake Becchina. “We remain open to discussions with the city to identify sources of funding for body cameras.”

Kansas City risks missing a fortuitous opportunity if it doesn’t act decisively. It just so happens the City Council’s Finance and Governance Committee Wednesday will be looking at replacing the police department’s aging dashboard cameras. It would be an opportune moment to look at body cameras that would sync up with new dash cams.

Overland Park’s Chief Donchez notes the compatibility of his department’s cameras will make it possible for the body cameras to turn on automatically — an important convenience in the heat of the moment. And compatible cameras also streamline the process of presenting video evidence in court.

The big bugaboo, of course, is cost. New dash cameras for KCPD are estimated to cost $6.6 million; a 2017 department estimate of body camera and related costs was another $6 million. No doubt the price has gone up since then, but if purchased in tandem with in-dash cameras, some discounts could be had.

More importantly, body cameras are becoming increasingly essential to police work. With each officer-involved shooting or controversial arrest, officers and citizens alike are hungry for video that provides visual evidence of what happened.

Police body cameras can no longer be considered a luxury for a major law enforcement agency. Each citizen interaction brings with it potential complications and controversies. There’s no excuse for not recording them when the technology has become so available and sophisticated.

It may be too late for the moment for Kansas City to get a package deal. The money hasn’t been set aside for the body camera portion, and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, who chairs the Finance Committee, says he’s unaware of whether body cams even have the support of the Board of Police Commissioners, which he said would have to come first.

Board President Nathan Garrett voiced support for body cameras last year. “We have crossed the Rubicon on whether we support body cameras,” he told The Star. But apparently, the board and City Council haven’t come to a meeting of the minds.

That’s a terrible shame. Making the overdue decision to purchase body cameras could help build trust and accountability between Kansas City police and citizens, and that’s a precious commodity today.