By Gloria Lloyd
St. Louis County fulfilled one of the key promises of the Proposition P sales tax last week when the County Council unanimously approved body cameras for the St. Louis County Police Department.
The county agreed to pay $1 million a year for five years to Atlanta-based Utility Associates for body cameras for more than 700 police officers, which won’t cover the entire force but nearly everyone who is not on the command staff or at a desk job. That decision was made to keep costs down.
Money for the bodycams comes from Prop P, the half-cent countywide sales tax voters approved in April 2017.
Along with raises for police, one of Chief Jon Belmar’s key promises in his plan for that money was to buy body cameras, which had been a recommendation of the Ferguson Commission.
“We really went into this because I believe, we believe, the St. Louis County Police Department believes, that we owe a transparency piece to our public,” Belmar said. “I think it’s an opportunity for transparency, I think it’s an opportunity for officer safety, and I think it’s going to answer some questions as we move forward into modern-day policing.”
As part of the contract, the county will also add dash cameras to nearly every patrol car.
Although some cars had dash cams in the past, the equipment needs to be replaced after a certain number of years, and none of the patrol cars currently have dash cameras. The contract will add dash cams to 350 patrol cars.
Halfway through the five-year contract, Utility Associates will replace all the body cameras and give the county updated equipment if the company has come out with newer models.
Another aspect of the contract that makes it attractive to the county is that it comes with unlimited cloud storage, where Utility will host the videos on its servers but the Police Department will have constant access to its own data.
The million-dollar-a-year expense is more than Belmar originally planned in his proposed budget for the more than $40 million in Prop P dollars St. Louis County takes in every year. His original spending plan called for $741,922 a year for body cameras.
But even to keep the eventual number down to $1 million a year, Belmar had to negotiate with the company for a longer deal in exchange for a lower per-year cost. The county will pay $1 million each year instead of upfront.
Despite voters already signing on, the body camera vote did not come as easily to the council as it might seem.
With only five members on the council, two members – 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack – hesitated to vote for body cameras because of newfound concerns by some activists over how the cameras could be used, or turned off.
The administration of former County Executive Steve Stenger issued a request for proposals, or RFP, for body cameras in April 2018, the first anniversary of Prop P.
Although Stenger resigned office and pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges of creating phony county contracts in May, council Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, said he believes the contract is a legitimate one that went through all the proper channels.
Utility was the lowest bidder, he added.
And despite some last-minute concerns from activists who said body cameras can at times be ineffective or improperly used, Trakas said he sees broad agreement that body cameras are a good thing.
“This is something that at least historically both sides of the aisle have been clamoring for,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s much of a negative that someone could point to to say there’s a reason not to use body cameras… The bottom line is at least as far as I’m concerned, the use of body cameras will wind up being a plus for the community and for police officers.”
If officers decide not to turn on or wear their cameras, that would fall to the Police Department to discipline those individual officers like they do with any other policy violation, “unless they can show that the device malfunctioned or something,” Trakas said.
At a council committee hearing on the cameras, police activist John Chasnoff — who lives in University City but is known locally for pressuring the St. Louis city government to create a civilian review board with subpoena powers for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department — said he started out as an advocate for cameras but has turned against them.
“Without the proper policies they can be government surveillance,” he said, noting that if an officer goes into a person’s home on a non-crime related call, that video could potentially be obtained through the Sunshine Law or accessible to other government agencies. “The right policies have to be in place — and they have to have buy-in from the public.”
Examples Chasnoff gave of situations that could be captured on camera of victims in special circumstances include rape victims, informants and people in their own houses who are victims of crime.
He also feared that police officers who view their own body camera footage could adapt their police reports to fit the video. He suggested that the officer should create a preliminary report from memory, then add a supplement later after viewing footage.
Former police chief and 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, said he believes time will show that the video usually favors the officer’s account of things.
But although Gray said she was sympathetic with Chasnoff’s concerns, she said the people have spoken.
“The community feels differently — they want to see body cameras,” Gray said.
But she added that she thinks body cameras won’t prevent every incident from happening.
“Body cameras don’t necessarily change the person,” Gray said. “You’re still going to have things happen on both sides. Body cameras are not the officer, it is the training.”
Clancy voted for the body cameras, but also emphasized the importance of the policies surrounding their use. She said body cameras were not a “single solution” to solving transparency issues.
“My hope is that the county realizes its return on this investment in an increase in both officer safety and civilian safety, but that will only be true if the county Police Department enacts the correct policies, reviews said policies and data regularly and intentionally and adapts as necessary,” Clancy said before her vote.
“Nearly five years after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, we can’t continue to ignore the many calls to action in the Ferguson Commission report, which too many of us in St. Louis County have left largely untouched. If the return on investment, which could be a decrease in incidents of use of force by officers and citizens, and a decrease in citizens’ complaints, is not realized, the responsibility for that failure rests especially on this body and the county Police Department.”