More big-city police forces to expand use of body cams

Philip Marcelo
Associated Press

Boston — After months of testing, many of the nation’s big-city police forces plan to expand their use of body cameras by the summer, but the number of officers with such gear will still be relatively small, an Associated Press review found.

The 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other deaths at the hands of police around the U.S. have led to demands that officers be issued wearable cameras to deter misconduct and document shootings and other clashes. But because of cost concerns, union resistance and other factors, the rollout has been slower than some cities envisioned.

An AP look at the nation’s 20 largest local departments found that Chicago has begun issuing the devices to over 2,000 officers, or less than 17 percent of its roughly 12,000-member force, though it says it will eventually offer them across the department. Philadelphia has begun equipping about 5 percent of its force and Houston nearly 6 percent.

New York, the nation’s largest city police force, says it plans to buy 1,000 cameras by the summer, or enough to outfit less than 3 percent of its 34,000-plus officers. But the department said Tuesday there is no date for when those will be put to use, and no plan as yet to equip more officers.

Detroit police began issuing cameras to officers this year, with hopes of having the entire department equipped within three years. Its plan is to be the first in the nation to integrate body cameras with in-car dashboard cameras.

It’s estimated it will cost Detroit about $3 million to equip all officers with cameras and to buy video storage equipment. It would be paid for from the police budget and federal grants.

For some cities, the expansion comes in anticipation of the summer, when crime typically rises. For others, the availability of federal money to help pay for the technology is a driving factor.

Some suggest that in many cities, the number of devices in use is far smaller than what politicians and law enforcement leaders had been promising over the past year and a half.

“I would suspect we’re woefully short,” said James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. “They make these lofty pronouncements and then they don’t put their money where their mouth is.”

Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said cities are moving fairly swiftly, considering the complex questions at stake.

In Los Angeles, the City Council balked at an ambitious plan to outfit about 7,000 officers with body cameras by the end of this year, amid concerns over its projected $58 million cost over five years. The department, which rolled out 860 cameras last year, now hopes to meet its goal by the fall of 2017, at the earliest.

And in Nassau County on Long Island, New York, the police officers’ union late last year halted a small pilot effort, arguing to a state labor panel that the department imposed the plan without negotiating.