Funding the biggest issue with body cameras for Dover police

DOVER — When it comes to body-worn cameras, officers from the Dover Police Department say they want them, as do most of the citizens in the city and members of Dover’s City Council.

The biggest question facing the acquisition of body-worn cameras is, who is going to pay for them?

The city is looking for possible federal and state assistance in getting the cameras but is also trying to put together a backup plan in case other methods of funding fall through.

Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson provided an update on body-worn cameras at the virtual Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee portion of the Council Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday night.

Thomas Johnson

“The body-worn cameras is still a project under development,” Chief Johnson said. “The standpoint right now is we are in close contact with elected officials. I think we’ve had both national- and state-level officials together with us on the same call or in person. There’s been some energetic conversations going on.

“Probably over the last three to four weeks, the task force which was assembled by the state was discussing (body cameras) under the transparency subcommittee, and I believe they are well on their way to have something shovel-ready for January when the Legislature comes back into session, and we’re kind of paying close attention to that.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen urged council members to have a backup plan in place just in case other funding is not available, particularly amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’ve had a little input on pursuing these bodycams and being conscious of the expense that goes along with them,” Mayor Christiansen said. “Both (Chief Johnson) and I, in the interest of our taxpayers, certainly hope that the state decides to grab the bull by the horns and, with 48 police agencies across the state of Delaware — and some of them being one- and two-man departments — pick up the tab on this.

“But I would certainly be more comfortable if we as a body politic, in order to reinforce our commitment to our citizens, asked staff to begin looking at worst-case scenarios of a mechanism to fund this program if we have to go by ourselves,” he said.

The mayor added, “I don’t want to see us go by ourselves, and I don’t think it would be fair to the citizens of the city of Dover to have to bear this expense, but we’ve made a commitment as far as our 21st-century policing — a commitment in community policing, a commitment to our citizens, and this, indeed, is one of the tools that we would like in our toolbox.”

Police say the body-worn cameras will record interactions between police officers and suspects during arrests.

The cameras could possibly prevent an incident such as the one that left George Floyd dead May 25 in Minneapolis. In that encounter, an officer knelt down on Mr. Floyd’s neck during an arrest, which prohibited him from being able to breathe — sparking nationwide protests regarding racial injustice.

Chief Johnson said his officers are anxious to acquire the bodycams as soon as possible and put them to use.

“We’re just waiting to see which one (funding plan) we’re going to land on, so we can get over this hurdle,” Chief Johnson said. “We value (body-worn cameras), and we actually think it’s going to improve a lot of the things in relation to our current climate once it crosses the finish line. Like a lot of other things, we’re trying to be smart about it as much as we are trying to work hard on it.”

Dover Police Lt. Jordan Miller, who is also president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15 in Dover, said the officers who report to him ask about the cameras every day.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where someone doesn’t say, ‘You know, that would have been great to have that on a body camera. Wouldn’t that have been good?’” Lt. Miller said. “We’ve wanted them for some time, and we understand that the funding is an issue.

“I’ve spoken to a couple of different contacts throughout the state, and I think every (police department) wants them. I think it’s the ultimate window into what’s actually happening right now. It takes all that guessing work from behind the scenes right out of the equation. I can’t wait to hear what the end result’s going to be.”

Chief Johnson said that it’s all a matter of finding the right fit — and the right amount of money — to put the body-worn cameras into use in Dover.

“We obviously have contingency plans on standby in case the state does not follow through with a solution that trickles down to the municipal policing level,” he said. “We understand that there is some energy behind a statewide solution for the state police, and, at that point, what the conditions would be for us to piggyback on to a state police program has yet to reveal itself.

“I gave hard data not too long ago in a meeting with state Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, who asked pretty pointed questions about numbers and lead-in time and things of that nature. So we’re kind of poised to execute whatever the most expeditious yet fiscally sound plan comes to pass.”

The chief added: “If that means coming back and relying on local assets, that’s what that will mean. It’s going to be a little bit of a financial hit out of the gate, but after the initial relatively mid-range six-figure number, the maintenance numbers kind of go down from maybe Year 5 on.”

City Councilman Ralph Taylor, chair of the Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee, offered a different solution for acquiring body-worn cameras for Dover’s police officers, which Mayor Christiansen supported looking in to.

“If we do have to fund it, I would like to take in consideration an option that was given to us that is leasing the technology,” Councilman Taylor said. “(There would be) none of this one large purchase and not having to pay for the (video) storage. This would give us the option to continually have the most updated equipment available. So if we’re going to take this path where we have to fund it ourselves, I would much rather lease it versus buy it.

“People do this all the time, like (schools) buying computer systems, and then, you find rooms within the district where the room is full of computers, and they’re antiquated, outdated, and they’re no longer able to be used,” he added. “I don’t want to be in that position with body cameras.”