Cost, time frame factor in to Dover’s eventual decision on police body cameras

DOVER — There is no question that Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson, Mayor Robin Christiansen and members of City Council are in support of acquiring body cameras for police officers in Delaware’s state capital.

The question they do have is, who will pay for it?

City officials said they would like to get a federal grant and save money rather than put the full cost of the cameras into the city’s budget.

The issue of body cameras for the city’s police officers was discussed during the Council Committee of the Whole’s Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee virtual hearing Tuesday night.

When the half-hour discussion subsided, Councilman Roy Sudler Jr. made a motion that “the mayor, in conjunction with the chief of police, negotiate the best deal immediately in 2020 with vendors to be reviewed by City Council in regards to body cameras.” His motion was passed unanimously.

“I believe that the body camera will aid the city and council with ensuring fair treatment, quality police service and justice for all mankind,” Councilman Sudler said.

Chief Johnson said his department fully supports transparency and the acquisition of body cameras.

“The perspective of the police department is we are happy to receive a body-worn camera program in whatever way council feels is most appropriate,” said Chief Johnson. “It’s a combination of trying to do it economically, trying to do it up against the prospect of a larger (statewide) program that can come in on the heels of it or go forth immediately or do something on our own.

“What it’s going to be able to do, as far as being integrated with the 911 centers and being integrated with other systems that are semi-related to what the body-worn cameras will capture, I know they are looking for funding at the state level. I was in a meeting last month at the U.S. attorney’s office.”

He added: “Delaware is just the right size to be able to do this at a state level. It’s just got to get done somehow.”

Dover’s police chief said that his studies have indicated that the price tag for a body-worn camera program for the city would cost somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 over the course of an additional roll-in program, which should be in the area of three and five years, depending on the package and program the city opts to choose.

The estimated cost is not only for the body cameras, but includes hardware, storage considerations and a staffing charge.

It also puts the city of Dover in somewhat of a quandary. Does it implement its own body-worn cameras for police or wait and see if the state funds the program for it and other police departments throughout Delaware?

“As a police department, we’re confident in what we do and how we do it,” Chief Johnson said. “We’re prepared to wait and see what the state might be able to accomplish that has less of a dramatic financial impact on the city and will lend itself to easier continuity with the attorney general’s office and other law-enforcement partners that might need to have access to the video — or we could just easily go on our own.

“That just comes down to the pleasure and the preference of our city administration and the council as a whole. Do you want us to negotiate the best deal that we possibly can with all the vendors that are right now competing for our business? We will try to give you the best product in 2020 to be deployed as soon as practical within the bounds of the estimates that we get.”

Covering all the bases
Mayor Christiansen tried to cool down talk of just jumping into financing the body cameras solely through city funds and said to take a look at all possible avenues.

“I will remind everyone that the governor and attorney general and some other folks around three weeks ago, maybe a little bit longer, endorsed the prospect of a statewide program (for) state-funded body cams,” said Mayor Christiansen. “We need our police force to be centric. While we have these figures ready for council, I think it’s incumbent for the people who made those promises or made those statements, that we go back to them and look to them to come up with this (body-worn camera) program.

“I wish the council would endorse us moving forward and looking at an independent venture here and then iron out the details at a later date. I will tell you one thing, our chief is firmly committed into bringing our department into the 21st century, but also doing it fiscally responsible.”

City Councilman Tim Slavin said the city has run out of excuses and needs to do better when it comes to the community’s expectations of social justice. He said the body cameras should help provide a clearer picture of what takes place during arrests and confrontations between police and citizens.

“I think I’ve worked with six chiefs of police, and during that time, we’ve brought out cameras in cars and cameras on poles, and each time when we brought out cameras on cars and cameras on poles, the first thing we were told was, ‘It’s going to be too expensive,’ and ‘We need more people,’” Councilman Slavin said.

“The clear voice on council on (body cams) is that we want this program and that we’re all — the chief, the mayor, us (City Council) and the staff — are going to exercise due diligence to get us the best possible outcome knowing that there is a cost involved and there’s a time factor and there is an expectation from citizens.

“I believe the motion doesn’t commit us to funding, but it also says that we’re not blinking on this issue — we’re not falling asleep on this issue.”

According to recent crime statistics, the city can’t afford to.

Body cams could drop crime rates
In Dover, Group A offenses, such as criminal homicide, robbery and aggravated assault, among others, rose 28.5%, from 4,902 in 2018 to 6,299 in 2019, according to police. Shootings skyrocketed from 16 to 38, a 138% increase. Officers seized 136 firearms in 2019, compared to 80 the previous year, an uptick of 70%.

Councilman David Anderson said that if the city adds body cameras to its police force, the crime numbers may drop. He added that there is a lot of information to be gathered as to what the state might be planning on doing and what the city’s response could be.

“It is an important element in establishing trust in the modern era, an era where everybody has cellphones and they may not necessarily reflect the entire incident,” Councilman Anderson said. “Body cameras protect citizens, and they protect the police. They protect everyone in the institution of justice. This is about helping to solve crimes and potentially lowering crime (rates).

“We can get all the information that we need. We’re not going to spend money right away, but in order to even apply for the grant, we have to have the information. If the state and federal monies don’t look like they’re coming, we cannot wait on them … we’ve waited five years,” he said.

Councilman Matt Lindell suggested that City Council members draft a letter of support for body cameras and send it to elected delegations at the state level to start putting some pressure on the state officials to deliver on their promises of body cameras for police.

In response, Mayor Christiansen said, “Mr. Lindell, I greatly concur with your suggestion, but I think we need to act on Councilman Sudler’s motion because it shows in good faith that this council, the mayor and the chief of our police department are committed into looking into having a plan in place just in case folks that made promises in the middle of a storm forget them in calm waters.

“I think if we have a program in place then we’ve made a commitment to the citizens of our community and to our police department to be a 21st-century police department. It is imperative that we go on the record as mayor and council of supporting a body camera program for the protection of our officers and our citizens. To do anything less does not show good faith to the folks in our community,” the mayor said.

Chief Johnson said he will look at the potential funding of body cams from all sides.

“This clearly can be a little bit different depending on (who) we decide best fits our needs,” he said. “Doing something that’s part of a larger statewide program that has more standardizations associated with it and the most cost-sharing is the economical way to go. The problem with that is we just don’t know how long it’s going to take.”