Friday, October 31, 2014

Hidden cost of body-worn cameras

There is a growing movement afoot in the United States to put cameras on police officers. It is gathering momentum, perhaps as a result of the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri this past summer. The movement involves some strange bedfellows: both police supporters, and some groups that are, well, not exactly known as best buds of the police. Here locally, the ACLU has been advocating body worn cameras for Lincoln police officers lately.

I like body worn video. I handled a particular model several years ago at a conference, and thought it was the first really practical and affordable one I had seen. I came back to Lincoln, and we acquired four of those. They worked well, and didn't break the bank. I'd love to have even more, but I don't think we are anywhere close to ready, despite the clamor.

This reminds me of a similar effort to get cameras into police cars in the mid 1990's. The technology of the time, usually a consumer-grade camera recording to 8mm tape, was really not up to the task, and many departments plunged headlong into video systems only to find that they had inadvertently created their own nightmare. They didn't plan for such things as the cost  and logistics of storing and retrieving video, training, tagging evidentiary clips, installing, maintaining, and replacing equipment.

By the end of the decade, you could commonly read news stories about departments where half of the cameras were out of service at any given time, or the department was scrambling to find money to replace broken and outdated equipment.  The problem abated as some departments scaled back their installations to a manageable number, and as the technology improved. Today, digital in-car camera systems are a much more mature technology, and though expensive, we've learned the lessons of the 1990s on how to make such a program work. I'm glad in hindsight, that we didn't dive into the water too early in Lincoln, and waited until the technology improved.

I worry that the same thing is happening with body-worn video. In some ways, it is a disruptive technology: a game-changer that leap frogs vehicle-mounted systems. If I were a street officer today, I would want one badly, to both help me collect iron-clad evidence, and protect me from bogus complaints. But departments who head down this road better be cautious not to repeat the errors of the past.

The reason I think this is such a risk is that the cost of the cameras themselves is fairly modest (around $800 to $1200 for a camera and the accessories). That's a lot of money for a big department  but still, seems quite doable if you put your mind to it. As a result, equipping cops with cameras looks pretty attractive.  But there are much larger hidden costs, along with logistical and policy issues, and I'm not sure people have thought through these completely, and are fully prepared to deal with them.

Fortunately, the Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum have both recently released very good reports on the myriad of considerations surrounding body worn cameras. These reports would be valuable reading for camera advocates and for police chiefs.

Just dealing with the financials, I did a little math on what it would cost to equip about 240 Lincoln police officers, sergeants, and detectives with body-worn video. I used the data from the two reports, which came primarily from New Orleans, LA and Mesa, AZ. The start up cost doesn't look too bad:

240 cameras and accessories x $1,000 = $240,000

Okay, that's a lot, but surely we could figure out a way. But there's more--the cost of operations that you'll experience every year:

One technician to support the systems and manage the data $65,000
Annual cost of data storage and management  $240,000
Replacement of one third of cameras each year  $80,000
Total annual cost $385,000

I think these estimates may even be a bit low. There is another hidden cost, though, in the time each user would need to devote to reviewing video, tagging and uploading video to a server or cloud service. If you figure that at ten minutes per shift, which would be very conservative, your looking at something north of 6,000 person hours per year--the equivalent of three full time police officers.

My guess is that there will ultimately be an evolution of this technology, so that storage costs fall, automatic uploading and tagging improves, and software tools get better, requiring less personnel time. Hardware will get better, with such things as longer battery life and lower pricing, and less expensive back-end storage-retreival-management solutions. Body worn camera systems will be more practical, and will become more widespread.


Anonymous said...

Another unintended drawback to Incar and eventually body cameras is juries now expect to see video evidence. If there is none, they tend to think the defendant has been set up and find them not guilty. In some places, it's so bad that if there is no video evidence, Prosecutors will not go to trial. We have to make people understand that every officer does not have video cameras and sometimes video does not capture what you want it too.

Anonymous said...

Video evidence that helps destroy a single frivolous lawsuit could effectively pay for the entire annual cost of the entire program. There are good reasons LE often records video or audio of contacts with certain individuals who have a penchant for fabricating allegations of misconduct. This is the reason I as a citizen like BW cams.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention damage to the units during the normal course of officer business. People fail to realize just how physical policing can be.

Tom Casady said...

7:33 AM,

Absolutely correct. That's why I think you'd have to plan on replacing 1/3rd of the units in any given year. Wear-and-tear, plus obsolecence. Not only can policing be physical, but simple bumps and bruises from constant in-and-out alone takes its toll.

Tim Hegarty said...

Costs are not hidden if agencies take a well-panned, long-term approach to evaluating whether body-worn cameras will solve current or future problems. I happen to believe that it is technology that communities will soon come to expect, or it may even be mandated by external governing bodies. Either way, agencies that don't do their homework now will pay the price later. To quote a great movie, "You can't stop what's coming, it ain't waiting on you."

Steve said...

Off subject, but wondering if you can tell me if police caught the "runner" they were looking for in my garage and yard about 2:30 this morning. I hope I didn't scare them too much when they were shining their flashlights in the back windows of my garage and I flipped the lights on in there.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, these body cams would only be used by officers, sergeants, and detectives? I think ALL law enforcement should be wearing these cameras for "protection". Including those who monitor and discipline based on the footage collected.

Anonymous said...

Is it legal for a citizen to record a police officer during an encounter?

For several years now when I am riding the motorcycle I have recorded trips when out and about. I have never been pulled over by a LEO when I had my camera recording but if that should happen can the officer legally ask me to stop recording in Nebraska?
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