Police body cameras were supposed to ensure transparency and also serve as a deterrent to officers who might otherwise brutalize a suspect. They were supposed to win public trust. To some degree, such cameras have fulfilled these promises, but the technology isn't cheap. Now, some smaller police departments are foregoing body cameras, claiming they are simply too expensive.
Body Camera Cost and Management
It's not necessarily the cost of the body cameras per se that are causing police departments to reconsider their use. While not cheap, the body cameras are not prohibitively expensive for most police departments. What adds up is the cost of storing the data collected by the department.
Currently, approximately half of the nation's police departments have some type of body camera program in place, although many of these are still in the pilot stage. One major body camera manufacturer states that every client that canceled a contract did so due to cost concerns.
Cost of Video Preparation
The costs associated with body cameras goes beyond police departments to the court system. The attorney for Virginia Beach, Virginia says that the cost of preparing video evidence has increased his office's costs by 10 percent – and that's $1 million out of a $10 million budget. Video review also includes tedious editing work, since cameras often catch people unrelated to the case and their privacy requires protection.
It's also an issue for court-appointed defense attorneys, who aren't paid much for providing representation to poor defendants as it is. The need for video evidence review has greatly upped average case preparation time, with no corresponding increase in pay for these lawyers. That could mean fewer lawyers will agree to represent such defendants, exacerbating an already serious shortage.
In Virginia, legislators estimate that prosecutors throughout the state will need to hire an additional 101 assistant Commonwealth attorneys and 57 paralegals to deal with the extra work needed to conduct video evidence reviews. That's approximately $6.4 million in added costs.
State Laws on Storage
With the advent of body camera footage came new state laws on storing footage, and that's where many small police departments are drawing the line. For example, one small Nebraska police department stopped its body camera program in November, after the state passed a law requiring storage of such video for at least 90 days.
That meant $15,000 in annual storage costs, an amount the five-officer force could not pay. Grants are available for the purchase of body cameras, but there are no such funds available for the cost of video storage.
The Future of Police Body Cameras
While it's unlikely urban police departments will give up their body cameras, the future in smaller areas is looking bleak. It appears many departments simply did not do their due diligence when making body camera purchases, and didn't account for the costs of video storage and review.
A research fellow for the Police Foundation writes that future programs will likely become “so operationalized that they will form new, modify existing or merge with emerging technologies,” such as intelligence systems and records management. Perhaps the best-case scenario for body camera video storage depends on more efficient and less expensive technology.
The Other Side of the Coin
However, what all the naysayers on police body cameras may need to think about are the costs that are offset because of the use of cameras. For instance, if someone is caught red-handed in the act of committing a crime on video, it makes it less likely that they will go to trial.
Also, cameras cut down on officers having to testify in hearings to their observations. For instance, before the ubiquitous use of cameras, if an officer wrote in their report that the reason they pulled a car over is because the car was weaving, and that's why they discovered drugs in plain view in the backseat, a good defense attorney would have had an obligation to set a hearing for how many times the car supposedly weaved, how far over the line, and how long the officer observed this for.
Next, there would be vigorous cross-examination on whether or not any drugs were actually in plain sight or if the officer fudged that aspect in their report. With video, all of this time, effort, and cost associated with this incident would be irrelevant and the department would end up conserving money.
Police body cams also have an impact on preventing civil suits against officers. If an officer is falsely accused of misconduct, the existence of a video would exonerate the officer thus preventing a costly civil lawsuit or worse, a multi-million-dollar judgment against the department.
The Bottom Line
Departments should weigh the long-term cost savings benefits of police body cameras against the present cost which may be difficult initially. Computer storage space is a commodity that goes down exponentially in price over time. Within a few years, the lower cost of both the camera technology and computer storage with make such tools attainable for even the smallest rural departments.