Over the past several years, police departments across the country have equipped themselves with body cameras in an attempt to increase accountability and mend relationships with communities who cited a lack of trust between themselves and the officers charged with protecting them. But many departments—particularly those in smaller jurisdictions—are either dumping or pressing pause on their bodycam programs, citing “extraordinary” costs.
In a recent report from the Washington Post, representatives from police departments across the country spoke about the substantial cost of maintaining body camera programs. The issue is less the price of the equipment—which can be partially subsidized by the Justice Department—than the costs of storing thousands of hours of footage.
As Jim Pasco, executive director at the National Fraternal Order of Police, told the Post, “The easy part is buying the body cameras and issuing them to the officers. They are not that expensive.
“But storing all the data that they collect—that cost is extraordinary. The smaller the department, the tougher it tends to be for them,” he added.
Arlington County, Virginia’s police department, for instance, opted not to follow through with a proposed body camera program once it was discovered it would cost about $300,000 a year.
The fact that body cameras are being dumped in smaller departments is significant. As the Post notes—drawing data from their own police shooting database—fatal police shootings occur more frequently in small communities than they do in urban areas with high crime rates. It writes:
Of the 1,800 departments that have reported a fatal officer-involved shooting since 2015, nearly 1,300 were smaller departments with 50 or fewer officers.
It’s impossible to ignore the implications here: Much of the impetus for police departments to acquire body cameras has come as a direct result of high-profile officer-involved shootings—particularly involving black men. The cameras were intended as a way of bridging a chasm of trust between police and non-white communities, and a way of creating transparency and accountability around cases of alleged officer misconduct.
But it seems a lot of communities were simply not ready for the administrative costs of installing these programs. According to the Post, police body cameras have also created a spike in court costs, as prosecutors and court-appointed attorneys take on additional hours and personnel in order to prep videos to be presented at trials.
From the Post:
Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle said video evidence has increased costs for his office by more than $1 million a year, a significant impact on a $10 million annual budget. Stolle is adding 14 employees— lawyers, paralegals and clerks—to a 93-member staff to handle the added workload.
Of course, body cameras haven’t been the cure-all for police accountability that some hoped they would be. According to a 2017 Gizmodo piece, the largest-scale study of police body cameras found their usage yielded no change in use of force or civilian complaints. And security and privacy experts have raised additional concerns related to the cameras being hacked—raising the specter of outsiders tampering with or deleting footage, or even using police networks to spread ransomware.