HOLBROOK — The Navajo County Board of Supervisors approved a new, $325,000 contract for body cameras for 40 sheriff’s deputies as well as county jail detention officers.
However, the vote triggered a fascinating discussion on the huge impact both cell phone videos and police body cameras have had on the criminal justice system.
County Attorney Brad Carlyon said he hopes the contract will help his office gather, redact, store and share the increasing number of video gathered by all kinds of cameras — from store security cams to bystanders’ cell phones.
Carlyon noted that his office spent some $30,000 gathering, archiving and redacting for public release videos taken when Shawn Michael Chock allegedly drove his Ford 150 pickup truck into a crowd of cyclists in June. Chock faces manslaughter charges after allegedly inhaling a chemical used to clean computers before the crash. Cyclist Jeremy Barrett died and numerous cyclists and bystanders were injured.
The new contract with WatchGuard will outfit officers with a video camera at an ongoing monthly cost of $50 per camera. The contract includes storage of the videos, as well as use of software to help redact the videos for public release. The law requires police and the courts to protect the identities of bystanders when releasing such videos.
WatchGuard’s owned by Motorola, which means the new cameras and editing software will be compatible with the county’s existing body cameras. The $325,000, five-year contract covers cameras for deputies and detention officers. But the county can add cameras for a cost of $50 per month. The contract includes automatic software and camera upgrades — and also replaces broken cameras.
The county ended up with three bids, including one for nearly $1 million. The Sheriff recommended WatchGuard both due to the lower cost and the compatibility with existing systems, according to Lt. Alden Whipple, who made the presentation to the supervisors.
Many police agencies are moving to require all officers to wear body cameras, especially in the wake of a growing number of complaints about police conduct and racial confrontations. The national furor over the death of George Floyd after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for a prolonged period was driven in large measure by the release of both police and bystander videos.
Some studies have shown that complaints against police have dropped significantly after police started wearing body cameras. Other studies have shown no consistent difference. Still others have suggested the chief benefit of police body cams comes when gathering evidence for trials.
One study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Council on Criminal Justice documented a 17% decrease in citizen complaints. The researchers concluded that despite the steep cost of the body camera systems, the savings from reduced complaints and lawsuits amounted to $5 for every dollar spent.
Much of the discussion on Tuesday at the board of supervisors meeting was driven by Carlyon’s hope that the county could convince other police departments to adopt compatible systems to reduce the rising cost of handling the flood of videos increasingly vital to the criminal justice system. The stakes are potentially enormous for the county and cities, given the rising number of lawsuits triggered by how police handle arrests.
“This isn’t a limited expense, it’s a growing expense,” said Carlyon. “We have to make disclosure (to the defense) of every body camera and cell phone video that comes in. I think I’m going to have to hire a full-time person just to edit videos.”
The handling of videos raises a host of thorny technical questions, with different police agencies using different types of cameras, different data bases and different technology. He noted his office must maintain three different data bases and handle four different video systems.
“It’s not efficient. Sheriff (David) Clouse is trying to take the lead in getting everyone together. Maybe we need to bring in the municipal leadership (city councils) and save everyone money and get rid of some of the territorial turf battles of the past 10 years,” said Carlyon.
“We need to upgrade our infrastructure to keep up with how systems have changed,” said Supervisor Dawnafe Whitesinger. “When you think of public safety, this is a perfect example illustrating the importance of things behind the scenes the public may not know about. There’s the assumption that things just work and we don’t know how it works.”
Board Chairman Daryl Seymore asked, “can this be used with other systems?”
Lt. Whipple noted “all these cameras can be deployed as separate cameras. The reason WatchGuard sticks out is that they’re owned by Motorola, so interfacing (with existing county cameras) is automatically part of the package. If we were to use another camera, we would need to purchase separate interfacing.”
Carlyon said the county will likely need a full-time video technician to ensure the legally required redacting takes place before footage is released to the public or to defense attorneys. “We run a liability risk. I’ve been trying to put off hiring someone because of the budget constraints the county has gone through – but we’re getting to the point where we won’t be able to.”
Lt. Whipple noted that the state has also recently completed evaluating body camera products for its officers.
“DPS has hired 15 positions just to be able to manage the body camera system and all the public record requests just for their agency,” he said.