In light of a national conversation about police use of force, body cameras for officers have been touted as a solution. Last week, the Baton Rouge Police Department announced they would be piloting the devices with 100 officers in the high-crime first district. The aim of the 10-month pilot is to determine the costs of a full-force rollout, as well as ironing out concerns over privacy.
Rebekah Allen, a government reporter with The Advocate, has reported on the issue recently and joined me in the studio to discuss.
Ann Marie Awad: Earlier this year, the Metro Council actually rejected a proposal to mandate the cameras, citing cost concerns. I know that the part of the pilot is to determine the cost, but is the pilot going to move forward if the mandate has already been rejected?
Rebekah Allen: Well, that was just for the mandate. The Metro Council as a whole is very open and supportive of the body cameras, the police chief very supportive of them, the mayor's office - they all said they wanted them, they just said that they couldn't mandate them for 400 officers without knowing how much is going to cost; without having a policy in place. There's a lot of unanswered questions. The police chief said he didn't know exactly how much it would cost for 400 cameras because you're not just talking about the the cost for purchasing the cameras, you're talking about server space, training things like that. So he says that he want to start with this 100 cameras, test it out for 10 months and then after that then they can evaluate. And they'll know, these are the issues that we're having, these are the issues we're having with the public and these are the costs that we can assume if we scale it to the entire size of the force.
AA: And other police departments are implementing them, do you know it all how they're handling the cost?
RA: So I do know that the New Orleans police department has had them since about the middle of last year, and their five-year costs are about $2.7 million and that's for 620 cameras.
AA: Now there's grants available for this type of thing - there's actually federal grants available - but I believe Baton Rouge got passed over.
RA: So there are federal opportunities to fund these. I think Thibodaux got some federal - or, they got a grant to purchase their body cameras and I think they were the first in the state to use the body cameras. They're also a lot smaller.
AA: It is smaller police departments in the state that a kind of taken to it quicker, like you see bigger ones like Monroe in Lafayette are considering it right now.
RA: So the Lafayette has the funds allocated and they're supposed to be purchasing them soon.
RA: I think it's 200 cameras for $270,000 and I think they're getting them next month.
AA: And what about Monroe?
RA: I don't know about Monroe but I think it is easier on a small scale because you're dealing with less equipment, it's less expensive.
AA: I guess what's the answer for larger cities? How can larger cities afford to pay for these programs are now in demand since the things we saw in Ferguson?
RA: I guess it's just a matter of priority. That's what, at least, Metro Councilwoman Denise Marcelle would say because she has been pushing these very hard for more than a year now.
AA: One of the other concerns I heard cited a few times were privacy.
RA: It is very different, it's a really different animal than the dash cams because everything that's caught on a dash cam is caught in a public sphere. If something happens in the middle of the street, if somebody walks by and you know and they're caught, like some sort of bystander just caught on tape, it's a public sphere. So the privacy concern doesn't exist there the way it does for an officer who's wearing a body camera who's walking into a house, who sees on their camera the belongings in the house, other people in the house, children, things like that. So there's a huge privacy concern for these departments that they're all sort of dealing with.
AA: Part of the reason for the pilot program with BRPD is to figure out issues like this.
AA: I guess we'll be watching it over the next 10 months.
Rebekah Allen is a government reporter for The Advocate. @rebekahallen