On Sept. 16, the Iowa City City Council approved $211,000 in funding for the Iowa City Police Department to purchase 84 body cameras — enough to cover the entire force.
The use of officer-worn body cameras has become increasingly common in recent years, though rules and regulations stipulating their use varies widely across the country, opening the door for certain gray areas with regard to privacy and police transparency.
In Iowa City, for example, much of the policy stipulating where and when these cameras will be used is still unwritten — though as of mid-September, the ICPD has been given a three month window to make its purchase. Here’s a rundown of what we know thus far.
They’re not exactly cheap
Acquisition and operation of the 84 body cameras, as authorized by the city council a few weeks ago, is going to cost $211,000. According to Captain Doug Hart, the officer in charge of Administrative Services for the Iowa City Police Department, this amount includes $163,000 for the cost of the 84 cameras with mounting equipment, docking stations, car chargers, software packages and shipping charges, as well as $48,000 for a storage solution and preparation of the storage space.
Hart says the department is currently deciding between two possible vendors to buy the cameras from, and that the cameras themselves will cost between $500 and $600 each (or about $50,000 altogether, using the ICPD’s high-end figure, which leaves a whopping $100,000 to pay for mounts, docks, chargers, software licensing and shipping).
Though officer Hart has seen cameras available for as little as $200, he says the department is willing to pay extra for higher end cameras with features that he hopes will help to improve efficiency.
“Ours are more expensive because one thing that we’re looking for is that we want to be able to stick the body camera on the charger and have it download the video that’s on it at the same time,” Hart said. “Right now we have body cameras that you have to do a manual download of, and it’s fairly time-intensive for just the small number that we have.”
The devices could potentially pay for themselves over time, however. NBC suggests that the use of body cameras may lead to fewer lawsuits, complaints and court dates, thus saving money in the long run.
Very little policy has been drafted regarding their use
According to officer David Schwindt, the ICPD’s downtown beat cop, the department has yet to establish a specific list of rules or guidelines for when the cameras should be activated. Schwindt says that since the cameras have been in a “test stage” for the last year, very little policy has been drafted regarding their use.
“There are body camera policies that go all over the board from all over the country,” Schwindt said. “Where ours will end up, I don’t know.”
Schwindt says that his policy during last year’s test period was to activate his camera only when enforcing laws. If he was giving directions to a lost citizen, he says he would not turn his camera on. If he was writing a ticket for, say, littering, or smoking a cigarette in a prohibited place, he would. More to the point: There weren’t, and still aren’t, any rules dictating when and why an officer should activate his or her camera.
And although official policy is still unclear, reports indicate that the use of body cams has had a drastic effect in some cities. After police implemented body cameras in Rialto, California, for example, citizen complaints dropped by 88 percent and the use of force dropped by 59 percent.
Not everyone is on board
Community members, including local activist and leader of ICPDWatch, Sean Curtin, have expressed concerns about possible negative implications of the body cameras.
“The benefit of the cameras is only going to be there if they are recording all of the time, but then that gets into the question of what happens when they go on a routine call into someone’s house,” Curtin said. “Does the individual inside the house, in their living space, is that [recording] then public record?”
Others have compared officer-worn body cams to dash cams, noting how the latter has often been exploited for public gawking purposes — especially in circumstances involving public figures. The challenge, as the LA Times suggests, comes down to “striking a balance between transparency for police and privacy for citizens.”
The public will not have immediate access to the videos
According to Schwindt, at the end of a shift, officers turn their body cameras in to supervisors who upload video to a police server. From that point on, the only people with access to the videos are the officer who made the recording and supervisors within the Iowa City Police Department.
In most cases, the videos contain evidence in ongoing police investigations, and are therefore withheld from the public. Schwindt says the videos also often contain personal information about the people in the videos that cannot be shared publicly.
“We have access to a lot of information that cannot be made public,” Schwindt said, “so if I’m standing talking to somebody and I get their name, date of birth, social security et cetera, and then I arrest them for public intox and let’s say they decide to fight me and there’s use of force and they’re criminally charged, I’m not sure how the department’s handling releasing that video as a public record after the deposition, because that person’s name, date of birth and social security information are not part of public record. We can’t release that.”
Typically, the videos exonerate officers, not the other way around
Schwindt says the cameras have been useful to police in situations where community members have come forward with complaints about officers. He says he can’t think of an instance where an officer has been implicated in any kind of wrong-doing through the use of a body camera.
“It saves a lot of time and, I think, provides for a more transparent investigation when those people complaining don’t just receive a letter saying [their complaint] was unfounded,” Schwindt said. “They can actually see and hear the events for themselves the second time.”