The Long Beach Police Department’s second round of tests for body cameras is nearly complete, and continuing it will likely require millions of dollars, according to the department.
A memo from LBPD Chief Robert Luna this month said there will be an annual price tag of about $2 million to expand the program to all the city’s patrol divisions and handle a “backlog” of public records requests for footage and other documents.
Currently the city’s police force has body cameras on about 200 of its more-than 800 officers. The new funding could bring several more hundred cameras into the fold and expand the program beyond the north and south areas of the city where it’s being tested.
Luna wrote the program has cost the department about $430,000 so far. Expanding the deployment of cameras could be “seamless,” but he says it would likely require at least 10 new full-time employees to administer the program.
Those employees’ jobs would include responding to records requests for body-camera footage by searching, reviewing and redacting portions of video.
“It’s not simple, straight forward work and requires a lot of detail,” said LBPD Bureau Chief Jason Campbell. “Privacy is very important to the department and we want to make sure we don’t release information that we shouldn’t.”
Campbell said that the department has seen a steady stream of requests for video since the department started the body-camera program. He expects that to increase as the number of cameras proliferates. The LBPD received about 1,600 records requests last year, according to a department spokesperson, and is on track to hit that mark again. That’s an average of over four requests per day.
Additionally, Luna’s memo says new police transparency laws could have a “significant impact on the ability to successfully support and maintain a BWC [body-worn camera] program and associated costs.”
In particular, he points to a new requirement from Assembly Bill 748: Starting in July, that law puts into place a 45-day deadline for police departments to release video from all “critical incidents,” which typically involve any time officers fire their guns or use force likely to kill or maim someone.
Luna also cites Senate Bill 1421, which, since January, requires departments to turn over records about “critical incidents” and previously secret files about officers who have been disciplined for dishonesty or sexually assaulting members of the public.
The department currently has just two full-time positions dedicated to handling public records requests, and Luna said that the new laws could exacerbate a growing backlog of requests that could put the department in legal limbo.
“This team has been struggling with the increase in requests,” Luna wrote.
He warned a failure to meet the new public records requirements could “result in significant legal liability to the city and loss of community trust in the department.”
Councilwoman Suzie Price, who has pushed the department to get its body-camera program up and running, said she thinks the cameras could actually end up saving the city money.
“It is completely unacceptable for a police department our size to not have body-worn cameras deployed throughout the agency, or at least throughout the majority of the agency,” said Price, who also works as an assistant district attorney in Orange County. “I’m very optimistic about the direction that we’re headed.”
Price pointed out the city has paid out a number of high-dollar settlements over the years with families of people who were injured or killed in interactions with LBPD officers.
She said body-camera footage could have prevented some of those lawsuits from being filed or provided exonerating evidence for officers at trial, she said.
“There’s something about direct evidence and being able to show a jury exactly what happened that alleviates a lot of speculation,” Price said. “Juries like that. They don’t have to base a decision on credibility of a witnesses or the likeability of attorneys.”
Price said, in her experience, a $2 million price tag seems a bit high for the program to be spread to the entire LBPD, but she said that the number could serve as a starting point and be scaled back if the staffing needs diminish.
While city leaders have been unanimous in their support for body cameras, implementing the program has received pushback from the department.
During the May 2018 City Council meeting where the current body camera contract was approved, Luna was skeptical of the city or department having the technical capabilities to store so much video footage or upload it from the field.
“I agree with you,” Luna said of the importance of LBPD officers wearing body cameras. “I think it’s a necessary tool, but it’s going to take a significant budget enhancement for us to make this happen.”
Budgeting for body worn camera programs has been an issue across the nation, especially for smaller departments. The Washington Post reported in January that about half of the nation’s roughly 18,000 police departments have some sort of body-camera program with many raising concerns over costs associated with data storage and processing requests for video footage.
Axon Enterprise, one of the nation’s largest purveyors of body cameras, told the Washington Post that, of its clients that shuttered their programs, all cited the costs. However, many of those were small departments with less than 100 officers.
If the city does move forward with an expanded program, the number of cameras deployed could swell to 875 from the current level of about 200. The program could eventually include other contracted officers who serve at the Port of Long Beach, Long Beach Transit and Long Beach City College.
The pilot program, which ends in June, is the second such attempt by the department to outfit its officers with body cameras with the first being approved by the City Council in 2016, over a year after the process to find a vendor began in 2015.
That program ended in November 2017 because of what the department characterized as an inability for the previous vendor to meet the department’s needs. The current pilot program was approved in May 2018 with Axon.
Campbell said that the department is recommending that the program be expanded but said that ultimately it will be up to the City Council to determine if there’s enough money to do so.
“It certainly hasn’t been our position to want to push this off,” Campbell said. “We’re very big on technology. Anything to make our job safer and the community safer and to increase transparency is viewed as a good thing.”