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How Would Body Cameras Work for Louisville Metro Police? That's Still Being Figured Out.

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Even before police practices came under national scrutiny, Louisville Metro Police leaders were exploring a new technology that police critics and advocates alike say would improve relations between officers and the public.

Body cameras have been under consideration in LMPD for nearly two years, police officials said.

A pilot program will launch this summer with about 100 officers in Division 5, said Sgt. Phil Russell, a police spokesman.  Division 5  includes the Highlands and Clifton neighborhoods.

“It’s a division that has a lot of opportunities to interact with people, but they’re not so busy that it’s a distraction,” Russell said.

A full roll out to the department's nearly 1,200 sworn officers is expected to follow by 2016, Russell said. He said LMPD has been “proactive, not apprehensive” regarding body cameras.

Focus on equipping officers with body cameras has been at the forefront in the national conversation  about police transparency after high-profile, fatal police encounters with residents in Missouri, New York and Ohio.

A petition in Louisville in support of body cameras for Louisville police has nearly 2,700 signatures. Police in nearby Clarksville and Bullitt County already wear body cameras.  Bardstown Police announced just weeks ago plans to equip officers with body cameras.

The process has been slower in Louisville due to a “myriad of issues” that police “cannot afford to get wrong” when it comes to body cameras, Russell said.

“This is not something that has been intentionally held up,” he said.

“When you have a department our size there are a lot of factors, logistically, that have come up."

These factors include the cost and the process of formulating policies for body cameras, Russell said.  The potential violation of certain civil liberties is another issue police officials have had to weigh.

Cost

Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad said “actual prices are difficult to quantify” at this point because a vendor for the cameras has yet to be selected.

Requests for proposals are “being reviewed by the purchasing department,” Conrad said.  A bid for a body-worn camera system was sent out to providers this month by the city’s division of purchasing.

Conrad said the police department has their eye on cameras manufactured by a company named TASER.  They cost about $700 each, he said.

That means the purchase of cameras alone could cost the department nearly $500,000.  But Russell said the hardest hitting costs are associated with data storage.

Cities similar in size to Louisville can experience up to $3 million a year in costs associated with data storage, Russell said.

“You’re talking about a significant cost to the taxpayers,” he said.

Also, personnel costs may arise, Russell said.

New hires may be required to assist in monitoring and managing footage, like the prepping of footage for court use as well as fulfilling open records requests, he said.

Officers will also be required to sift through their daily recorded footage and log the files into a storage system—time that officers could instead be “on the street patrolling," Ruseel said.

These costs, he added, are “unknown,” but substantial.

Policy

Best practices of body-worn cameras are also unknown.

“This is new technology and we are breaking new ground,” Russell said.

This means many of the details of how Louisville Metro Police officers would use body cameras remain shaky. Those questions include when officers are to turn on their body camera, how exactly the footage is used, and who would have access to what's filmed.

A report released earlier this year from the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, looked extensively at this issue of how departments around the country mandate camera usage.

Nearly a third of the departments that responded to the survey that had instituted body-worn cameras had no specific policy governing how officers use them, according to the report.

The report recommended police agencies lay out specific guidelines for when an officer must turn on a camera, and requirements that officers specifically state why they turn the cameras off while on-duty.

“As a general recording policy, officers should be required to activate their body-worn cameras when responding to all calls for service and during all law enforcement-related encounters and activities that occur while the officer is on duty,” the report states.

But the presence of a camera can greatly impact how the public interacts with the police, Russell said.

He said a camera may cause someone to shy away from giving an anonymous tip or provide critical information about a crime.

LMPD standard operating procedure regarding body camera usage by police is still “preliminary” and will be “refined” following the testing period this summer, Russell said.

Privacy

Privacy issues abound with body cameras. When it is suitable to record? What footage is available for public review?

For example, if police search a home with a body worn camera turned on, the footage would potentially be logged into public record.  This means that a neighbor could, in theory, request the footage, and have unprecedented access to another person’s private residence.

These concerns have led the American Civil Liberties Union in Kentucky to encouraged police to adopt fair policies for body cameras.

Kate Miller, a program director for the ACLU of Kentucky, holding police accountable and ensuring people's privacy requires a "unique balance."

“There are a lot of challenges when it comes to implementing this technology,” she said.  “They need to make sure that folks’ privacy are not at risk.”

The privacy of the police officers must also be considered—for example, Miller said. should officers leave the cameras on when while eating or using the restroom?

Data retention also plays a role with privacy, the PERF report said.

The length of time that recorded footage is retained increases the probability of the footage being made public, the report said.

The type of footage—be it evidentiary or non-evidentiary—should be a determining factor concerning length of retention.

The report recommended retaining evidentiary footage longer than non-evidentiary footage, which does not aid in the arrest or citation of an individual, is not recommended to be retained as long as evidentiary footage.

The most common retention time for non-evidentiary video footage for the departments consulted in the PERF report was between 60-90 days. Another factor: the longer the retention time, the higher the storage costs.

Officer Response

Russell, who has been involved with LMPD for more than 20 years, said he is surprised to see how receptive police officers are to the idea of body cameras.

“This is not something that officers are opposed to, by and large,” he said.

A top concern, he said, was ensuring cameras are comfortable and practical.

LMPD seems to be leaning towards a point-of-view mounted camera, meaning it will be situated on an officer’s head via a headband or eye-glasses mount.  Other mounts, like a chest mount or shoulder mount, are subject to obstructed views, Russell said. Point-of-view camera angles, though, could also removed by a suspect or knocked off an officers’ head, he added.

Officers also have concerns about the policies for when and where they're supposed to record. Russell said officers often find themselves suddenly  in “critical incidents." Turning on a camera might not be a top priority.

“Does an officer need to say ‘OK wait, hold on, before you ambush me, let me turn my camera on,’” he said.

Russell said he believes that officers, as well as the public, are better behaved when a camera is rolling.

In Rialto, California, officer use of force incidents decreased nearly 60 percent in just one year following implementation of body cameras.  In the same time frame, citizen complaints dropped 88 percent.

Rialto, a city with about 100,000 residents, has been dubbed the "poster city" for body-worn cameras.

“Now that the officers wear the cameras, they say that they could not do without them,” Rialto Police Chief William Farrar said in the PERF report.

Moving forward

Russell said the costs to the taxpayers are inevitable, but necessary.

“This is something we are moving forward with, no matter what,” he said.

The cameras are expected to cost “millions of dollars over time," Russell said.

“That’s the reason we have proceeded slowly and cautiously, so that we don’t open the department up to liability, the city up to liability, but also don’t waste taxpayer dollars," he said.

We'll have an end-of-year interview with Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad on Wednesday. Stay tuned for more.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.