County prosecutors have joined a growing group calling for local police to wear cameras after two recent shooting deaths of Black men by sheriff’s deputies.
The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Action and Reform Committee and Prosecutor Tony Golik issued a letter Monday in support of police-worn cameras and urged governing bodies to “practically and financially support” them.
The statement was first shared with Sheriff Chuck Atkins — who’s expressed support for a camera program — county councilors, and County Manager Kathleen Otto, according to Chief Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jackson.
The prosecutor’s office noted that although local agencies appear to support the use of body-worn cameras, none are using them. Police across the U.S. have adopted body-worn camera programs, the prosecutor’s office said, adding that it’s time for Clark County to do the same.
“A law enforcement agency that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record. Doing so enables law enforcement agencies to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of their communities,” the statement reads.
Public pressure on the issue has intensified following the fatal shootings of 21-year-old Kevin Peterson Jr. and 30-year-old Jenoah Donald. Peterson’s shooting is being reviewed by an outside prosecutor’s office to determine if deputies acted appropriately. Donald’s shooting death remains under investigation. But at a Feb. 16 county council meeting, roughly two dozen people submitted verbal and written comments, expressing dismay and calling for transparency and changes to policing.
Body-worn cameras create law enforcement accountability, the prosecutor’s office said, and provide agencies with a risk management and training tool. The video recordings also help prosecutors evaluate and assess cases.
“Research and experience demonstrate that, when properly used, body-worn cameras assist in curtailing improper police conduct and verifying appropriate police actions,” the letter states.
Cost an issue
Cost is most often cited as an obstacle in implementing a body-worn camera program.
Both the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Vancouver Police Department have previously cited cost as an obstacle. In addition to the startup costs for equipment and training, it costs money to store thousands of hours of video footage, as well as to hire staff to fulfill the resulting public records requests.
Atkins estimated Monday that it would cost the sheriff’s office roughly $750,000 to set up a body-worn camera program and then another $500,000 per year to maintain it.
“Just to reassure people, the sheriff’s office … (has) never been against it,” the sheriff said. “It’s just we have not been able to find the resources to fund it.”
His office started planning for a camera program more than two years ago in anticipation of a state mandate or the issue coming to a head.
During the county’s two most recent budget cycles, the sheriff’s office asked for $700,000 to “begin planning” for a body-worn camera program. But none of the budgets approved by the county council included funding.
Atkins said he plans to put in a supplemental budget request in March for implementation of a program.
County Councilor Gary Medvigy, who chairs the Clark County Law and Justice Council, said during the Feb. 16 meeting that the council is “going to have to find that money” for a program. He said the county can’t wait for funding from Congress or the state Legislature.
The prosecutor’s office said Monday “next steps must be taken.”
“When presented with the opportunity, our local legislative bodies must approve any budgetary appropriation for body-worn cameras. We owe this to the citizens of Clark County,” the statement reads.
Endorsed by defense firm
Vancouver Defenders, the county’s largest criminal defense firm, on Monday joined with the prosecutor’s office in requesting the implementation of body-worn cameras by law enforcement.
“In 2021, the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement can no longer be considered novel or cost-prohibitive technology,” said Christie Emrich, who leads Vancouver Defenders. In a written statement to The Columbian, she continued: “The citizens in our community have a right to demand it, and our governing bodies have a duty to provide the necessary tools for law enforcement to ensure transparency and accountability.”
However, some were critical.
Local attorney Angus Lee argued that the prosecutor’s office should commit to a budget freeze until the sheriff’s office receives funding for body-worn cameras. He further pressed for the prosecutor’s office to put a portion of its current budget toward the endeavor.