Body cameras gaining favor in AZ police departments

Oro Valley Police Officer Manny Guerrero stands with his motorcycle wearing one of the departments body-worn cameras. Photo by Megan Canterbury
Oro Valley Police Officer Manny Guerrero stands with his motorcycle wearing one of the departments body-worn cameras. (Photo by: Megan Canterbury/Arizona Sonora News Service)

He asks Robert William Smith if he can search him. He turns a bit and Officer Tyler Stewart’s hands brush over the man and asks what he has in the pocket of his black Columbia jacket.

“Smokes,” Smith responds, as he pulls out his hand, and the video cuts out. Smith pulled a .22 caliber revolver out of his pocket and shot Stewart five times killing him, all on video from the officer’s body camera.

Amid calls nationwide for increased transparency and a greater use of body-worn cameras, the Dec. 28 death of Stewart of the Flagstaff Police Department, which had introduced cameras just six months earlier, showed how on-scene perspective from body-worn cameras provides valuable evidence in tragedies. Many who advocate their use also believe they provide a check on potential abuses of power by officers.

The issue came to national attention in late 2014 after several officer-involved shootings, such as that of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson Mo., by officer Darren Wilson where there was a lack of video evidence in the case.

The use of body worn cameras has been increasing over the past two years after Rialto, Calif., put them on officers in 2012 and reported in their own study that instances of officer’s using force dropped almost 60 percent in a year and complaints against officers dropped almost 90 percent.

Incidents like that in Ferguson led the Obama administration to announce a $263 million investment package to expand the use of cameras in police departments nationwide, with $75 million for purchasing 50,000 cameras over three years.

Further, the concern over police officer’s over using force led Arizona Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, to propose HB 2511, a state house bill to mandate all Arizona officers wear cameras while on duty.

In a phone interview on the bill, Bolding said that the bill came in response to events nationally and locally and that he hopes that HB 2511 will improve police community relations.

“We have to prioritize public safety,” Bolding said.

However, the cost of body-worn cameras raises concern among departments, as a law may force money away from where the department may need it.

According to a 2009 FBI report, titled Crime in the United States reports that Arizona has 12,971 officers and that the cost of the cameras alone would be around $7.7 million alone with an additional cost of about $3 million per year for officers in the state to gain cloud access to sites like evidence.com from Taser International.

The differing costs in access levels refers to the the amount of access officers will have to Taser’s cloud storage site. Pro access, designed for senior officers and recommended for 20 percent of a department, gives greater access. The standard licence is for all other officers wearing a camera and offers them basic cloud access for posting.

The costs of the cameras has forced departments wanting to implement body-worn cameras to search for funds in their budget or slowly integrate cameras to cover costs.

Oro Valley Police Officer Manny Guerrero wearing one of the departments bodyworn cameras. Photo by Megan Canterbury
Oro Valley Police Officer Manny Guerrero wearing one of the departments body-worn cameras. (Photo by: Megan Canterbury/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Oro Valley Police Department introduced cameras in its department over the past two years, but most of its 100 officers are still without cameras.

“We started with seven cameras. We now have 12 cameras being worn and look to increase to 18 in July,” Oro Valley Police Department Lt. Chris Olson said in regards to the program. “Body cameras create significant budget concerns. Departments wishing to use the technology have to convince city managers and city councils that they are important and should be supported in a general budget.”

Olson states that some departments may need to go outside of the typical budget to cover costs.

“Departments could also apply for grant funding which will address initial equipment cost” Olson continued, “but is unlikely to cover regular support costs.”

That is the route Safford Police Department took to expand its camera program through the department, reaching out to the United Way of Graham County and receiving a grant of $80,000.

Steve Tuttle, vice president of Communications at Taser International, which is the producer of the AXON camera used on officers in 1,200 departments, says that the company has seen sales greatly increase since the implementation by the Rialto Police Department.

“What’s fairly typical is agencies take small bites of the apple,” said Tuttle, discussing the issue of cost in departments and slower introductions.

Tuttle did argue that the cost was worth it in what it could save in dealing with potential litigation and complaints.

“We estimate they saved $20,000 per complaint that could cost millions potentially,” Tuttle said discussing Rialto’s program and figures related to loss from complaints, then bringing up potential lawsuits that could go to court.

Departments implementing body-worn cameras are seeing positives in their use and see them as part of the future.

“Slow integration helps get buy-ins as our officers who are currently wearing the cameras are providing insight to those who are not,” Olson said of the cameras, “OVPD has seen the value in evidence collection and identification training, and it has shown complaints to be without merit.”

Sgt. Margaret Bentzen of Flagstaff Police Department is supportive of the use of cameras in her department as well.

“Our officers have been open to trying equipment which will make their jobs more transparent and accurate,” Bentzen of Flagstaff Police Department said. “We are working with our legal on privacy issues and applications.”

Speaking for himself and not on behalf of his department, Olson said that he sees the cameras as a great benefit to policing.

“I believe body cameras increase transparency and improve behavior on both ends of the camera,” Olson said. “I believe body cameras are increasingly important and allow the officers to demonstrate their first person perspective.”

Eric Klump is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact himat eklum@email.arizona.edu

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