Body cameras and filmed interactions with the police are a significant change in the dynamics when it comes to building trust between police and the communities they serve. Before body cameras entered the scene, the courts would end up in “he said she said” situations with no effective method to reconcile conflicting testimonies. Now that there is first-hand footage there is finally a vehicle of accountability and clarity for all sides.
So why are some police departments backing out of using body cameras? Costs.
As an example, according to a Washington Post article, East Dundee, a suburb of Chicago, had ordered 17 cameras for its police force that serves approximately 3,000 people. The village board ended up dropping the contract because it was costing the police force an extra $20,000 annually.
“The easy part is buying the body cameras and issuing them to the officers. They are not that expensive,” said Jim Pasco, executive director at the National Fraternal Order of Police. “But storing all the data that they collect — that cost is extraordinary. The smaller the department, the tougher it tends to be for them.”
Axon, the leading supplier of body cams has indicated that in the smaller jurisdictions every client that has cancelled their contracts cited costs as the reason for it.
Similarly, in 2016, the US Department helped a survey of police departments that haven’t started using body cams to understand their reasons - the vast majority cited costs, while privacy concerns were a distant second.
Smaller police forces in rural areas often struggle with budgets. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, in 2018 police officers in the lowest tenth percentile fo earnings average around $35,000 per year. In that context outfitting an officer with a camera that has a 90 day storage requirement or more carries a heavy fiscal burden. The argument that this money is better off being spent on higher salaries, training, or other equipment goes a long way in smaller towns.
In contrast, the top 10th percentile of police make over $100,000 a year, and in the better funded major metropolitan area this is not nearly the same issue that it is for smaller rural towns. The discrepancy amongst the “haves” and the “have nots” in American police force budgets and salaries is material.
Accountability activists often miss the point of the budgetary considerations. Our view is that we need to push the politicians to bridge in the form of state-level assisted funding programs that provide not just legislated requirements, but also funding and technical direction to help smaller PDs move forward.
Funding allocated to addressing police transparency should not be a partizan issue, and we think this would go a long way to making police-community relations more transparent and constructive.