By Robert Patrick
All St. Louis police officers could be wearing body cameras within 90 days after a contentious and chaotic vote of the St. Louis Board of Estimate and Apportionment Wednesday.
Normally staid affairs, the meeting featured crowd members and board members shouting each other down amid the crowd's demands for immediate action.
Although officials said that there were many details that still need to be worked out, the board voted unanimously to immediately implement a free, one-year trial with one company while a longer-term contract is sought.
Among those details are privacy concerns and the agreement of the police union, which has historically been opposed to the cameras. St. Louis Police Officers Association business manager Jeff Roorda said Wednesday that the union wanted "to make sure our officers' due process rights are protected," as well as the privacy rights of citizens. "And we do want to make sure that guys aren't singled out for discipline because of the department not liking them."
Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed said that during the trial period, Axon, formerly known as TASER International, would provide up to 1,300 cameras and all the associated equipment and software and store the data for a year for free.
At the end of the year, it could all be returned at no cost, he said, or the city could pay $1,000 per camera per year to keep using Axon. That would be $1.3 million per year for 1,300 cameras. The city would be retain control of the data, he said.
Frustrated at the years of debate on the camera issue, Reed said 75 percent of major police departments had them, "and we're still discussing them," three years after the death of Michael Brown and the resultant protests and demands for police accountability.
Reed said St. Louis was at a "major crossroads" and that it was critical to move forward to benefit residents as well as police. "Body cameras tell you exactly what happened," he said.
But the other two members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, Mayor Lyda Krewson and Comptroller Darlene Green, complained that they had been sandbagged by an 11-page contract that was delivered to them just hours before the meeting.
Green said her first copy had sections blank, with information filled in later on a second copy distributed at the meeting.
Many of their concerns and questions about the details of the contract, the lack of police input into the proposal and the speed at which Reed was moving were shouted down by a crowd that was angry, impatient for change and demanding an immediate vote. Among those in the crowd were pastors, activists and friends and relatives of those killed by police.
"Take care of it now. Now!" one man demanded.
"Vote yes and show us you care," another spectator shouted later.
Green eventually proposed that the board vote to solicit bids for a long-term camera program that would be finalized by the end of the year. After more debate, Reed combined the proposals and the vote was met by cheers and applause.
After the meeting, Green said, "We've got our work ahead of us." She said that she was only seeking a long-term solution during the meeting, and wanted to "knock the politics aside."
Reed called it a "tough meeting" and said "if the crowd wasn't here, I would have lost." He also said that failure would have caused "more turmoil" in streets already roiled by a judge's decision last week to acquit Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer charged with murder.
He acknowledged there were details to work out, but said that the one-year trial program could be implemented without the approval of the police union, because a smaller trial already has been approved and conducted.
Roorda said the first trial did not need union approval because cameras were placed on sergeants, who did not have a union contract at the time.
But he said the union "will meet our obligation to bargain in good faith." He did say that camera advocates were using the recent protests "as cover to advance an agenda."
Krewson said union buy-in would be necessary. She said that Reed forced the issue on the board via a "very unusual process" or putting forth a contract, but called body cameras an "important tool."
She seemed confident that officials could work out the details. "Many other cities have done this."
Krewson said of the crowd, " I appreciate the pain that was being expressed in that meeting."
She said that she'd already seen tweets from elected officials opposed to the move.
Ward 15 Alderman Megan Green tweeted: "There must be policies in place to protect victims of crimes and witnesses, policy on who can have access to footage," during the meeting.
Ward 21 Alderman John Collins-Muhammad was among those who tweeted their support.
Earlier this year, members of Privacy Watch STL and the ACLU supported a bill that would require public scrutiny before the board approves new surveillance technology.
A law professor cautioned at a conference in St. Louis in May that body camera footage is not a panacea and can be misinterpreted, particularly in use-of-force cases.
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