By Mark Carlisle
In an attempt to provide more transparency after a year of record police shootings, Phoenix City Council approved the purchase of 2,000 police body-worn cameras for $5.7 million. An additional $1.6 million will be spent annually to hire staff to run the camera program.
After a 7-1 Council vote earlier this month, the five-year contract for the body cameras began Friday, Feb. 15.
The 2,000 body cameras from Scottsdale-based Axon Technologies, which distributes police equipment across the U.S., will equip most of the Phoenix Police Department’s nearly 3,000 officers. Under the new program, 21 civilian positions will be added — 11 to the police department and 10 to the city prosecutor’s office — to administer the program. Adding to nine existing positions, the 30 total positions will cost the city $2.4 million annually.
The $5.7 million for the body cameras and existing software will be paid for from the police department’s budget, including grant funding. The $1.6 million annually — $8 million across five years — will be paid for from Phoenix’s general fund.
Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the U.S. by population, had 44 police shootings in 2018, which shattered previous records and was more than any of the four largest cities in the country. It more than doubled the number of Phoenix police shootings in 2017, which was 21.
Department officials have attributed the stark rise to a more violent population, but many residents claim it is police abusing power. They hope the body cameras will increase police transparency.
“We do not and cannot trust this department,” said Phoenix resident Parris Wallace at the Wednesday, Feb. 6 Council meeting. “As we’ve said for several years, body cameras are the bare minimum, the absolute bare minimum, in the steps that can be taken towards transparency. We know that body cameras won’t reduce the use of force by Phoenix Police Department or keep them accountable with their actions to the community, but for those people who have been impacted by this police violence, body cameras are an important step toward getting closure and ensuring there is more than just the cop’s side of the story.”
Ms. Wallace was one of 17 residents and activists who spoke at the meeting, all in support of the purchase of body cameras. Several speakers were from the west Phoenix nonprofit activist group Poder in Action, which has criticized Phoenix police for its high rate of shootings.
Proponents of the cameras have pushed for their adoption since 2010. In 2013, a pilot program in Phoenix’s Maryvale District equipped 300 officers with body cameras. In 2015, the city started a Community Police Trust Initiative Task Force, inviting residents to give input on police issues.
“Today you have the opportunity to build the bridge of trust between law enforcement and the community by passing this,” Rev. Reginald D. Walton, who served on the task force, said at last week’s meeting. “…By voting yes, you’re telling people that we take your safety seriously.”
The 300 cameras used in the pilot program will no longer be used once the 2,000 new cameras are implemented.
Patrol officers, who are typically first responders to a scene, will receive the cameras first. The rollout will begin in the Maryvale-Estrella Mountain precinct. The department anticipates it will take two weeks to outfit and train the precincts 225 patrol officers. It anticipates all patrol officers in the city, about 1,250, will be outfitted and trained within six months. The department also anticipates adding about 130 patrol positions in 2019.
The second phase will add cameras to officers in traffic, transit and downtown operations, totaling about 150. After this phase, the department will decide where the remaining cameras, about 370, would be best utilized.
Mr. Walton said, as did several others who spoke, that the body cameras would be pointless without proper policy behind them, including consequences for officers who turn off their cameras when they shouldn’t.
Ms. Wallace also emphasized the importance of a strong policy.
“Without strong body camera policy in place, this will just be a waste of over $5 million and will let the Phoenix police get away with providing (a) false sense of security and transparency,” she said.
Ms. Wallace read from a list of demands that included mandating officers give a verbal statement explaining why they’re turning off their cameras before they do and that videos of incidents be released to the subject’s family before it’s released to the media.
Police Chief Jeri Williams agreed that families should be allowed to view body camera video before it’s released to the media.
“I think that’s only human. That’s what we should do,” she said.
Executive Assistant Police Chief Michael Kurtenbach said the cameras will automatically turn on for certain types of calls.
“That will eliminate that human error to a greater extent because the cameras will automatically turn on,” he said.
Mr. Kurtenbach noted that the cameras would always not be on, listing instances such as officers’ lunch breaks, personal phone calls and bathroom trips that would be inappropriate to record.
Other residents who spoke requested body camera footage be released to the public within 48 hours of an incident. Mr. Kurtenbach told Council the department would revisit that request in six months to allow time to see if that timetable was possible.
Vice Mayor Waring was the lone opposing vote on the Council.
Councilwoman Vania Guevara noted the staff report stated the addition of the body cameras would demonstrate a commitment to transparency, ensure accountability for officers and increase the public’s trust in the police.
“I think that would be a great outcome and I’m ready to work with the police department to make sure that happens, but this plan alone won’t do it,” she said. “Achieving this outcome is just as dependent on the policy that governs the use of these cameras and the video that’s created by them.”
Councilwoman Laura Pastor was optimistic toward the effect the cameras would have on police and community relations.
“I do strongly believe in (my) heart of hearts that public safety want to do the right thing and the best thing for our community because at the end of the day, they are part of our community and they live within our community,” Ms. Pastor said. “And so I believe that we can really — and I have faith — that we will get to that space and time where trust has been rebuilt.”
A 2017 government study monitoring 2,000 police officers in Washington D.C. found no significant differences in the behavior of officers wearing body cameras compared to those who didn’t for uses of force and civilian complaints. The authors also found that wearing body cameras did not have an impact on general police activity, such as writing tickets, making arrests and responding to calls nor on the outcomes of cases prosecuted.