Police weighing unexpected costs of body cams

Police weighing unexpected costs of body cams

About a year after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the village of Rossville took the same step as hundreds of small towns and major metros from coast to coast — it invested in body cameras for its police officers.

At the time, it seemed like a wise investment for the Vermilion County village of 1,261 — eight cameras at $450 a pop, plus a docking station, wouldn't bust the budget.

What happened in the months that followed, however, caused the village to rethink that.

In January 2016, a new law took effect in Illinois, requiring departments with body cameras to keep theirs on at all times — with few exceptions — and to store all the footage recorded for at least 90 days, sometimes longer.

"Storing the video that you collect, it got so expensive," said Rossville Mayor Richard Queen, whose town had the only body-camera-equipped police department in Vermilion County.

But no longer.

Earlier this year, the Rossville village board voted to abandon the use of its body cameras, almost entirely due to the cost of storing the video.

Police Chief Chris Kelnhofer said it would have set the village back at least a few thousand dollars a year — and that doesn't include the one-time expense of investing in more sophisticated computer hardware and software.

Plus, no one in Kelnhofer's department has time to manage all of that video, the chief said.

"We simply couldn't afford to do it," added Queen, who like many is a believer in the technology, saying it protects both law enforcement and the public. "We thought we could store it using a thumb drive and store it locally, but we can't do it that way."

So now, Rossville has eight Axon body cameras and a docking station for sale. The hope is that another police department might take them off the village's hands since an attempt to sell them back to the manufacturer was unsuccessful, Kelnhofer said.

Champaign: A $550,000 investment

Most area police forces would like to equip their officers with body cameras, but costs — upfront and ongoing — present a significant hurdle, officials say.

And the bigger the department, the bigger the price tag — both for the cameras themselves and the technology and manpower needed to store hours of footage.

Champaign police officers began wearing body cameras this year. Some of the bids the city received for an entire system — including cameras for all 125 of the department's sworn officers, plus storage — exceeded $1 million, Lt. Nathan Rath said. Others were considerably less than what CPD wound up paying.

But you get what you pay for, he said.

The total expense exceeded $550,000 — $187,683 for the cameras alone, the rest for expenses that included simultaneously upgrading the department's in-car camera systems and purchasing new servers that store all footage from both systems.

There's also the cost of a half-time position dedicated exclusively to handling all of the footage from the body cameras, Rath said. Two other evidence personnel help with that work as needed.

Mahomet: A 'huge undertaking'

For Mahomet Police Chief Mike Metzler, the issue isn't the cost of the cameras themselves.

"The real cost for us comes in the management of the video itself," he said.

Mahomet continues to grow — it has added more than 1,000 residents since the last official census, in 2010, put its population in 7,258 — but it's not Champaign. Or Urbana, for that matter.

Last week, its police force returned to full strength by adding a ninth member. Finding the time for one of them to handle video isn't practical, Metzler said.

And storage involves more than simply ensuring that all footage is safely kept on a server for 90 days, the chief added.

It's flagging certain sequences for various purposes, copying or transferring footage to prosecutors for evidence, even redacting faces of innocent bystanders in video that can be the subject of Freedom of Information requests.

"Being able to edit, redact and copy and store that video is a huge issue for us, and the state of Illinois — with recent changes in law — has made it even more difficult," Metzler said.

He'd like to invest in body cameras, "because I think it's a good thing to protect the officer, but those costs and the manpower to do it is what's kept us out of it. ... It's a huge undertaking, and for a small staff, it's just not something at this point that we can get into."

Danville: Putting on the brakes

Danville police had done their research on body cameras, testing different models with certain officers and preparing to move forward with a big purchase.

And then the new state laws came into play at the start of last year, increasing the price tag to a level the department couldn't afford, according to Public Safety Director Larry Thomason.

"We had all the details and research ready to go, what it was going to cost us. Then came the new statute," Thomason said.

With the city already facing serious financial issues, body cameras were put on the back burner. Higher on the department's to-do list: upgrading officer' in-car camera systems.

"Those in-cars are equally as important," Thomason said, explaining that his department's cameras are so outdated, replacement models aren't even manufactured anymore.

"I'm still in favor of the body cameras, there's no question about that," he said. "They're certainly a tool used for a reason. It provides evidence of what happened at the scene, a real-time factor rather than just verbal written reports."

But, Thomason added, it's "a whole lot more work" than just ordering boxes of cameras.

Champaign County Sheriff: A new deal

The Champaign County Sheriff's Department found a way to lessen the financial burden when its deputies began using body cameras, in 2015.

Rather than buy new technology outright, it leased 80 cameras — $25 per camera per month.

"We could not afford to purchase everything up front," Capt. Shane Cook said. "We just could not do that, so this lease option, for us, works."

Cutting down costs on the cameras freed up funds to invest in in-house storage — at first, about $3,000 for 16 terabytes' worth, with the county's IT department maintaining the video footage. Since then, the department has had to upgrade, adding another 40 terabytes of storage at a cost of about $5,000.

With changes in state law requiring longer retention of certain footage, the department is changing direction this month. It's in the process of switching to a cloud-based storage system with its camera vendor, which will raise the monthly lease for each camera to $30.

For that extra $5 per month, the videos, once uploaded, can be stored up to 370 days in the cloud. And if needed, the department still has its in-house storage capabilities.

Cook said the new system will save the evidence tech and investigative supervisors time and energy in handling footage.

"Unfortunately we didn't get to add anybody," he said.

Elsewhere: Urbana hopeful for 2018

In Champaign County, Rantoul officers were the first to tack mini-cameras onto their uniforms, with 23 of them doing so in November 2014.

Helping cover the costs — $16,000 up front and about $7,4000 annually for cloud-based storage — was a large, anonymous donation made in 2011. The donor specified that the money had to be used for the research and purchase of body cameras.

"The pros (of having the technology) certainly outweigh the cons," Rantoul Lt. Jeff Wooten said.

It will take outside funds — possibly a grant — for Georgetown police to get the cameras, Chief Whitney Renaker said.

The storage requirements are what's kept Monticello police from getting cameras, said Chief John Carter, adding that the technology must be "usable and cost-efficient" for him to justify the expense.

Urbana police hope to invest in cameras — both for officers' bodies and squad cars — sometime in 2018. But whether that happens will depend on what the city budget looks like.

For more than a year, Lt. Joel Sanders said he has studied cameras, camera companies and support systems in depth. He just had a meeting this month with a representative of a body-camera manufacturer in Indianapolis.

Sanders said Urbana is looking at $150,000 to $200,000 in start-up costs, plus a half-time or full-time position in evidence to handle the footage. So tack on another $50,000 a year for personnel and $20,000 to $30,000 for a server, he estimates.

"That's a huge chunk of change, especially for Urbana when it's in a budget shortfall this year," Sanders said.

That said, he's quick to add, the costs are worth it.

"I think we are in an environment right now where the public demands that transparency with the police," he said, "so we need to find a way to make it happen."

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Mef wrote on September 24, 2017 at 9:09 am

In theory, having all officers at all times wear body cameras sounds like something rational that all police departments should want. Theory is not reality. When you force policies on people that aren't rational and aren't affordable, and mandate it into law, you have a recipe for disaster. Illinois seems to be good at being disconnected from the rationalable and reasonable, and, of course, affordable.

When No Child Left Behind came into existence, we gave it a clever name. I mean who would rationally want to leave any child behind, not giving them the same chance to succeed as any other child. All kids are to be equal and given the same attention and detailed education any other kid gets. Sounds all great and well, except not all kids are created equal and learn equally. So what you end up with is schools needing to hire extra teachers to give extra attention to kids because a law tells the schools they have to, or face losing state grants because you aren't following the law. Schools can't afford the new changes, but they can't afford to lose the state funding either. They are stuck in a lose-lose situation and the blame is passed onto the schools for not being able to adhere to standards that are set up to not be achievable in the first place.

Sounds quite familiar with the body cams. Public outcry is that police brutalization and assault needs to stop on innocent people. People need to be able to see the abhorent things police do to abuse their power, and it must be videotaped at all times. If you don't have the body cams, the public now believes you have something to hide and everyone on the police staff must be a bigot and racist. Those are the fun buzz words to throw around now. However, buy the body cams, and Illinois, as good as it is at screwing things up, forces extra expenses and time mandated by law that you do, or you can't have the body cams. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Yay Illinois!

rsp wrote on September 24, 2017 at 12:09 pm

The No Child Left Behind Act was named by its creators, it was named that to help sell it. Like most legislation with fancy names, the title is marketing. What you left out was the part that poor kids are not treated the same as rich kids, black kids the same as white kids. Disabled kids the same as abled kids.

One of the interesting things that happen when police wear body cameras is that not only are police less likely to be aggressive, but the public is also less likely to be aggressive. That's the funny thing about cameras, they don't take sides. They are like mirrors and we don't always like what we see.

All that extra storage stuff has to do with fair trials. Cases are being thrown out before going to court because of camera footage. In Baltimore, NY a review is being done on camera footage recorded by a group of officers who are suspected of planting evidence. They did it with their cameras on. The review is going back through prior cases looking to see what they can find and they are finding more episodes that look suspicious. Their lawyers claim they found drugs and were "re-enacting" it for the cameras. That's not allowed. The cameras must be on at the time they originally found it. In the case of a Utah nurse who was arrested for refusing to allow a detective access to her patient, one of the first things you hear is the officer tell the detective that his body cam is on. The detective lost his mind and not a single person tried to stop him.

There was a delay in getting video in the Baltimore case. They are still looking for cases and this has been going on for a while. Imagine if it was your family. Or you.

Mef wrote on September 24, 2017 at 9:09 am

deleted for duplicate comment

Local Yocal wrote on September 24, 2017 at 10:09 am
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The stakes are so high for civilians, that is protection against falsified police reports, excessive force, unwarranted searches, and planted evidence; it would be worth the storage expense to cough up the dough. The protection against police abuse requires storage so defendants can supoena the evidence. 

FairChamp wrote on September 25, 2017 at 9:09 am

Champaign paid what, $370,000 for Matt Rush settlements?  Body cam costs would be a much better investment to prevent abuse for years and for all officers.  The settlement money is just gone. As a taxpayer, I'd much rather my money buy body cams instead of paying victim after victim.