Law enforcement and justice officials met last week to discuss the implementation of body-worn cameras in Clark County, and all agreed that now is the time to act, despite issues of cost and public disclosure.
“We have no issue with body-worn cameras themselves as a tool that can be used in the field. The issues are cumbersome and can be difficult. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible,” Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said during a meeting of the county’s Law and Justice Council.
The council hadn’t gathered in some time due to COVID-19, said Chair and Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy. However, with people protesting police brutality and systemic racism, here and nationally, there were calls to meet and “discuss what’s going on and what we can do about it,” Medvigy said.
Atkins, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said at the meeting that they support pushing the project forward.
In an interview with The Columbian, Golik said officials need to take steps to restore confidence in the criminal justice system. That will require increasing transparency and improving methods for independent investigations, he said, such as those carried out following officer-involved shootings.
“I think that there’s complete agreement that body cams need to be implemented, and I think that’s a big part of the transparency component. I’m in support of that change. I fully expect the body cams will be implemented, and it will happen on a pretty quick timeline,” Golik said.
Atkins said last week he was not prepared to discuss specifics, but he estimated that cameras would cost about $1 million annually to maintain the program once implemented.
“These are guess numbers, but I would say I’m guessing low,” Atkins said.
The sheriff’s office has been contemplating body-worn cameras since a series of four officer-involved shootings by Vancouver police in 2019. Following the shootings, Jean Dahlquist, an intern at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government Fellowship Program, conducted an analysis of the cameras already being used at police departments in Washington, and Atkins presented the findings publicly in August.
Dahlquist estimated one-time program costs — which include cameras, video storage, added features and initial training — could range from $224,398 to $337,708. Estimated annual costs could range from $174,188 to $276,128.
Since that time, the project has been shelved due to little movement on funding, Atkins said. He said his office did not entirely agree with Dahlquist’s findings but found the bulk of her work satisfactory.
The sheriff also said he could not yet give specifics on a potential vendor, but the council decided that officers countywide, in agencies large and small, should be wearing the same cameras and using the same systems.
“If there’s any possibility of having added efficiency and centralized procedures, because it’s just a huge amount of data storage requirements, then we should look at the possibility of everyone kind of joining together,” Medvigy told The Columbian.
Some of the smaller police departments may feel like they’re being pushed into a costly upgrade, the council recognized.
Atkins has been tasked with reaching out to the county’s smaller law enforcement agencies and gathering additional information about the cameras and how the agencies could potentially work together, in an effort to keep momentum going on the project.
The Vancouver Police Department recently posted an update online about potentially implementing body-worn cameras, noting its progress and highlighting a number of hurdles. It started a study and had intended to engage with the public on the topic, but those plans were put on hold due to COVID-19, the webpage says.
The police department noted that when it first started researching, it seemed the rollout of a program would be simple. The complexities of using the devices became more apparent as the department continued to look into it, however.
A body-worn camera program would require the department to hire additional staff to manage data and address public records requests.
“The Vancouver Police Department currently employs a substantial group of full-time employees to respond to public requests for documents. The current staff would not have the time or capacity to add video responses to their workload; therefore, additional staff would be needed to manage the video requests,” the webpage says.
In spring 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 6408, which went into effect in June of that year, and clarifies what police can record and what is releasable to the public. Medvigy and the local law enforcement officials voiced persistent concerns about how public disclosures and the needed redactions that come with them could drive up costs.
The police department also noted that it needs to implement clearly defined policies and negotiate with the Vancouver Police Officers’ Guild, because state law requires public employers to collectively bargain changes in working conditions with affected unions.
Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said last week that despite the challenges, “it is clear we need to overcome them and implement body-worn cameras.”
“If we are to continue to build a trusting relationship with the community we serve, we need to remove barriers that cause them to question whether we are doing the right thing,” Kapp said.
Officials are looking at grant funding, which may help offset initial costs for equipment, and a regular funding stream, Medvigy said. The council plans to regroup in several weeks.