The Eau Claire Police Department wants to add body-worn cameras to its array of equipment, but costs to adopt new technology have seen the project get pushed out to future years.
The intention to have all 100 sworn officers equipped with them this year is shown in prior city planning documents, but that now doesn’t appear likely until 2022 or beyond, based on Eau Claire’s proposed 2020-2024 capital improvements plan.
Police Chief Gerald Staniszewski said he supports using body cameras because they help document arrests and other incidents, serve as evidence in court cases, can be used for training and provide transparency and accountability sought by the public.
“This is a police department-driven request,” he said.
In prior years’ capital improvement plans, there was $80,000 envisioned in start-up costs for a body camera program, but that figure proved to be too low.
“It was really a preliminary number,” Staniszewski said.
After doing further research into the growing number of body camera systems entering the market and consulting with the city’s information technology division, the anticipated cost went higher. Expenses including data storage space for the body camera videos and features that make the new equipment easy-to-use and integrate with the department’s other technology created a clearer picture of the full price.
The system the department currently has in mind would cost $221,000 in the first year and $143,280 in each of the following four years.
Added onto that is a new clerical position the department would seek at a cost of about $73,000 to handle the increased workload tied to the body cameras.
“We’re kind of at capacity right now,” Staniszewski said of his clerical staff.
It will ultimately fall to the City Council to decide whether the city should allocate money for police body cameras.
Council President Terry Weld noted that more cities are equipping their officers with the devices.
“It certainly is becoming more of a priority across the country,” he said.
But with the city’s property tax growth constrained by state-imposed limits, the addition of a new program often requires finding savings elsewhere in the budget.
“It’s just going to be a matter of what we’re willing to give up to make that happen,” Weld said.
Some law enforcement agencies in west-central Wisconsin have already adopted body cameras for their officers.
The Chippewa Falls Police Department was an early adopter of the body camera, getting its first couple in 2011 for officers to use on a voluntary basis.
A couple of years ago with a video system upgrade, the department got more cameras and mandated that patrol officers wear them while on duty.
“The officers like wearing them,” Chippewa Falls police Chief Matthew Kelm said.
Body camera videos are used for training purposes, for officers to review when writing their own reports and when the department investigates citizen complaints against officers.
Adding body cameras is nothing to jump into though, Kelm said. Chippewa Falls spent years doing research into the technology before starting to use it. And there still are situations where the cameras don’t capture everything.
“There are limitations to video, it doesn’t see everything,” Kelm said. “It’s a great tool, but it’s not the end-all, be-all.”
Officers wear the cameras on their chests, which means arms held in front of their bodies can block the lens from getting a full view. If the officer’s body is turned to the side, that could also prevent the video from capturing a good view of a situation.
The Eau Claire Police Department checks annually on the growing number of body-worn camera vendors, features they offer and their prices.
“The challenge with police departments is to try find something compatible with your current systems,” Staniszewski said.
That means being able to integrate squad car video, footage taken in interview rooms and the prospective body cameras.
The more those systems work together and are easier to use, the less time officers and clerical employees have to spend on making sure the videos are all properly filed into electronic records.
That’s a large concern considering the volume of additional records that would be added with the introduction of body cameras.
“It is truly going to double what we have right now,” Staniszewski said.
Currently the city files about 70,000 squad car videos every year into electronic police records. All videos are kept for at least 120 days before they’re purged, but about 19,000 are archived for much longer because they deal with court cases.
Adding body-worn cameras is estimated to increase the annual video count to about 180,000 with 45,000 going into long-term archives, according to Staniszewski.
There is growing demand from criminal prosecutors and the public to see video and audio recordings of police contacts in Eau Claire. Last year the department furnished 1,937 videos and phone recordings — 37 a week — to satisfy open records requests and the discovery phase of court cases. Halfway through 2019, the pace of requests has increased to 67 per week and the department expects it will provide about 3,500 video and audio recordings by this year’s end.
The city’s continued use of dashboard cameras in squad cars does somewhat reduce the urgency to add body cameras.
“We’re fortunate that we have that at least,” Weld said of the in-squad cameras.
But he added that the council will have to decide in the future if it is serious about funding body cameras or willing to continue pushing them back.
“Some decisions will have to be made at some point,” Weld said.