(TNS) — On a day when calls for him to resign were mounting, Kansas City, Mo., Police Chief Rick Smith stood in the middle of a crowd, picked up a bullhorn and announced that the police department had secured money for body cameras.
But a day later, a number of questions remained about ongoing public funding for the cameras, equipment upgrades, storage expenses. Issues of policy and public records also have not been answered.
The funding Smith announced came in the form of a $1 million donation from a private donor, the DeBruce Foundation, along with another $1.5 million from other community partners.
“We have been listening to the community’s call for change,” Smith told the crowd Wednesday. The donated money would likely be used to equip roughly 700 officers assigned to each of the department’s six patrol divisions. Another portion of the money could be used to create the database to store the video footage.
Community leaders have been calling for the body cameras for years, and the announcement Wednesday came after days of protest at the Country Club Plaza. Those demonstrations came amid others across the U.S. inspired by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota.
But Kansas City protesters have raised their own complaints about local police.
On Wednesday, a coalition of Kansas City civil rights groups called for Smith’s resignation. The group, which consisted of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, the NAACP’s Kansas City branch, and More2 cited a lack of confidence in Smith’s handling of fatal police shootings of African American men, and allegations of excessive use of force by the department.
Smith has said that he has no plans to resign.
One of the civil rights leaders said getting body cameras for officers is a good step, but nothing about their call for Smith to resign has changed.
“We stand firm in our belief that change in leadership is in the best interest of our community and it is necessary to achieve structural reform within the Kansas City Police Department,” said Gwen Grant, the Kansas City Urban League’s president and CEO.
Grant said the department should implement policies and protocols governing when officers are permitted to turn off their body cameras. She noted that two police officers in Atlanta were fired after they turned off their body cameras before they arrested a pair of college students who they claimed violated the citywide curfew.
Access to body camera footage must be made readily available upon request to investigate allegations of police excessive use of force and in police shootings, she said.
One Step Closer
Police have said they support body cameras because it will increase officer safety and improve accountability.
In 2016, the Police Department conducted a 90-day study in which it equipped 25 officers with body cameras. The test helped police officials determine how they would store footage from the cameras and whether equipment upgrades would be needed.
During that pilot program, the department had an average of 147 video recordings that used roughly 82,000 megabytes of data recorded each day.
The following year, police brass estimated the initial cost to equip hundreds of officers with body cameras came to about $6 million. The price tag then included start-up costs, equipment upgrades, storage expenses and hiring additional workers who would be tasked with responding to open records requests.
Two years later, police took a step toward equipping officers with body-worn cameras when it began accepting bids to buy them. No action has been taken since then as police officials said they continued to grapple with video privacy and storage issues.
Additional money to cover the recurring costs for maintenance, storage and hiring additional staff to manage public records requests has not been identified.
“We don’t have planned out yet, we just found out we have the funding,” said police spokesman Sgt. Jacob Becchina. “Increased accountability benefits the community and the department.”
Becchina said little has changed since the earlier cost estimates were made.
“We have procured some of the platform that made up the $6 million when we replaced our in-car system; that cost estimate was for storage and body cams; together, some of the storage has already been bought, leaving behind the $2.5 million number,” he said.
During a news conference Thursday at City Hall, Mayor Quinton Lucas said he did not yet know when the body camera program would be rolled out.
The city auditor would conduct an audit of the body camera system within three months of the start date of the program and present it to the City Council, Lucas said.
“That will be to ensure that we are adequately using them, not just saying that we have them,” he said.
Lucas said he believed “all of us” should have pushed harder for the city to get the funding for the cameras sooner. He called the cameras a helpful tool, but not the sole answer to fixing policing issues.
“It alone won’t change everything we see,” he said.
Other Cities with Body Cameras
Overland Park police issued body cameras to their 254 officers and investigators in November 2019. The effort to secure funding for the body cameras began the previous year in 2018.
Police officials reviewed various body camera models and data storage options before making their funding request to the Overland Park City Council, said police spokesman Officer John Lacy.
Once funding was secured, officers received training on how to operate the cameras and department policy for their use. It took several months before their officers were outfitted with the equipment.
Complaints from citizens who say they were mistreated by police officers have gone down, he said.
Overland Park police use body cameras from WatchGuard, which syncs with the dash cameras so that whenever an officer activates their emergency lights and sirens their dash camera and body camera will automatically turn on, Lacy said.
“We love them. It gives us more transparency. You get to see what we see,” Lacy said. “The only person who would not want this is a bad cop or a crooked cop.”
Kansas City Councilman Brandon Ellington said body cameras would help with documentation. But he was also unsure of their ability to deter bad behavior among police officers.
“Video cameras don’t stop bad actors,” Ellington said.
He noted that the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Eric Gardner in New York were captured on video.
“That’s when the accountability piece would come in,” he said. “What happens when the cameras go off or what happens when they malfunction?”
Allen Rostron, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said body cameras are valuable.
“They can deter a police officer from doing something improper, and they can be used to prove wrongdoing if something improper occurs. But they can also help to protect police against unfounded accusations of wrongdoing,” Rostron said.
The law says the recordings are closed records until the investigation becomes inactive. Someone could go to court and seek a ruling that the recording should be disclosed, and they would need to convince the judge that the benefit of releasing the video outweighs the reasons not to disclose it, he said.
Once an investigation becomes inactive, recordings made in that investigation become open records that anyone could obtain.
Many police agencies use third-party or outside companies to store body camera video.
This can create concerns about privacy and public access to open records, said Jean Maneke, attorney for the Missouri Press Association.
Private companies that store body camera footage may not be subject to Missouri public records laws. Those companies may not be required to release the video footage as if they were a public body such as a police department.
“How is it categorized as being a public record if it is not in the hands of the police department?” Maneke said.
Video captured inside of a private residence is not accessible to the public and there needs to be the ability to keep that information confidential, Maneke said.
Other policy questions concern video of juveniles and public access to that footage.
Some companies that sell storage space have made offers to law enforcement agencies to provide cameras free of charge if the company is allowed to store the content.
“It is going to be real interesting to watch this develop in Kansas City as all of these problems suddenly become things they have to deal with on a daily basis,” she said.
©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.