Detroit police to run 90-day body cam test

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Amid a national clamor for police transparency, city officials Wednesday unveiled the first step toward possibly outfitting the Detroit Police Department with body cameras.

A 90-day pilot program kicks off Friday with 20 officers from the 11th Precinct testing three camera systems to determine which works best. The initiative follows a program last year in the 2nd Precinct officers wore body cams.

In June, police officials will pick one of the systems and submit proposals to the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners and the City Council to use the cameras departmentwide, Mayor Mike Duggan said at a press conference at police headquarters Wednesday.

“An incident can happen to anyone, but what we are committed to do is build as strong a relationship (with the community) as possible to minimize those chances,” Duggan said.

Advocates of the technology say the cameras strengthen citizen trust in police and shield officers from false accusations about their actions with the public.

If approved, the city would buy 415 units, with each precinct receiving 30 cameras and cradles, along with chargers that would be shared by officers. Specialized squads would also be issued cameras, which would be mandatory.

For now, police will conduct 30-day test runs of cameras made by Taser Co., Innovative Solutions and Data 911. All three companies donated cameras for evaluation. The three firms were chosen from seven vendors that submitted requests for proposals.

Chief James Craig has advocated for the use of body cameras since he came to Detroit in July 2013, but he said a lack of money impeded plans to implement them. Duggan said there’s money available through the city’s bankruptcy plan of adjustment, although he declined to estimate how much it would cost to outfit the department with cameras.

“The biggest cost wouldn’t be the cameras; it would be the storage of the video,” Duggan said.

A Taser Co. official said last year the units cost between $300 and $500 each.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard recently conducted a study which found it would cost between $1.5 million and $1.9 million to equip about 315 deputies with body cameras and storage equipment. That doesn’t include operational costs or additional personnel needed to administer the program, Undersheriff Michael McCabe said.

On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids City Commission allocated more than $674,000 as two-year startup costs for 200 police body cameras, with $192,000 spent each year on video storage, the Grand Rapids Press reported.

Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality director Ron Scott, who has pushed for body cameras for years, applauded Wednesday’s announcement, but added: “These cameras are only good if the system isn’t mismanaged. I think this is a good start, though. It’s certainly commensurate with the general feeling nationally, and it’s been a long time coming.”

The national call for body cameras ramped up after highly publicized incidents involving deadly police force, including the August shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, officer and the death of Eric Garner after an encounter with New York police.

Officer Kevin Session of the 2nd Precinct was among the group of officers who approached Craig last year about the possibility of wearing body cameras.

“I believe in this technology,” said Session, an 18-year veteran. “I think it will help officers on the street, and will ultimately save the city money (by avoiding lawsuits).”

Session was among the 2nd Precinct officers who in April took part in the 30-day body cam pilot program. During the trial, a camera captured an incident where an officer used force to restrain a citizen. Police officials said the camera showed the force was necessary.

“I don’t know of any other city where police officers approached management and said ‘We want to try this,’ ” Craig said.

Mark Diaz, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association union, said he supported the effort to equip officers with cameras.

“For years, we have been inundated with complaints from a lot of criminals who said our officers were not acting in a manner that was appropriate,” Diaz said. “We not only defended those allegations, but time and again, we’ve proven them wrong.”

One of the concerns expressed during the first trial run was the cameras were cumbersome. Assistant Detroit Police Chief James White, who is developing a department policy governing the use of body cameras, said ease of use is important.

“When an officer makes a traffic stop, or is engaged with a citizen on criminal activity, this is something that happens quickly,” White said. “We don’t want officers thinking too much, and pushing too many buttons to make it work.”

White said he also took privacy concerns into consideration and consulted the city’s law department before developing the policy.

“With victims of sexual assault, and child abuse, those instances will not be recorded,” White said, unless it’s necessary for evidence.

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