Body camera funding grabs center stage at finance hearing

DOVER — For the second time in 13 days the Joint Finance Committee bristled at the prospect of providing the additional funding that law enforcement officials say would be needed to support the use of police body cameras.

Gov. Jack Markell’s January budget recommendation for $500,000 to purchase cameras and review footage has turned into a complicated morass with both the Department of Justice and the Office of Defense Services seeking more money to examine potential evidence captured by the cameras.

Attorney General Matt Denn is seeking an additional four positions related to body cameras.

He estimated 30,000 cases per year would involve video footage captured by a police officer, although he stressed that a great deal of uncertainty surrounds potential numbers and cost estimates.

Lawmakers appeared skeptical as he detailed his request Tuesday.

“From our perspective, as the funders, at this time it seems like the potential for cost here is unknown, large and escalating,” Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said.

During a morning budget briefing, several committee members were incredulous when an overview of Mr. Denn’s proposed budget was presented. There was open disbelief when a member of the Controller General’s Office said the Department of Justice believes it may need up to 25 full-time positions for camera review, although Mr. Denn did not mention that number during his hearing.

Chairman Sen. Harris McDowell said multiple times he believes the vast majority of footage is irrelevant to criminal cases. Echoing comments he made to Chief Public Defender Brendan O’Neill in a prior budget hearing, he questioned why the footage would be reviewed by lawyers rather than other, cheaper employees.

“Some of these disclosure responsibilities involve making legal determinations,” Mr. Denn replied. “For example, prosecutors have a responsibility to turn over what’s called Brady evidence, which is evidence that could be exculpatory to the defendant. That’s a legal judgment that an attorney can’t delegate.”

Mr. Denn said the state and local agencies are largely in agreement on a statewide camera policy, which is expected to be finalized within a month. The policy, which he declined to share details on, would likely cover storage, review and privacy for both officers and citizens.

Once agreed upon by the state and the Police Chiefs’ Council, the protocols are expected to be used by all local police agencies, as well as Delaware State Police. However, it is non-binding, meaning an agency can opt for its own guidelines with no penalty.

Despite that potential, Mr. Denn believes law enforcement will stick with the statewide plan.

“I think that it is in the departments’ interests to have a uniform policy because if they don’t, then it will create issues for their departments’ cases when they come to trial, so I think that you will see once there is a uniform policy the departments adopt it,” he said.

Lawmakers expressed worries about an officer or deputy attorney general altering the footage, with Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, indirectly referencing the 2014 state medical examiner evidence tampering scandal. State Prosecutor Kathy Jennings attempted to assuage legislators’ fears, citing “audit trails” that keep backups and show who accessed data.

JFC members had plenty of questions and several made their doubts clear, particularly pertaining to funding body cameras.

“It’s good for full employment for attorneys but it may not be so good for the state budget,” Sen. McDowell said.

Should the committee not provide the requested funding, already-overworked prosecutors would have to review footage on their own, Mr. Denn said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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