“I and all of us have known that at some point in the future we will employ body worn camera systems. It is the right thing to do for a variety of reasons. I support them personally and professionally.” With those words and others to the City Council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee on Feb. 11, Keene Police Chief Steven Russo dispelled any concerns that the Police Department is not behind calls for equipping the city’s police with cameras on their person and mounted in their cruisers.
There was plenty of discussion at the committee meeting about the right approach to funding body cameras, but a significant takeaway was the chief’s — and also City Manager Elizabeth Dragon’s — unequivocal endorsement of the benefits to citizens and police alike of adopting the technology. In years past, Russo had evidenced reluctance, tending to say he wasn’t against body cameras in theory, but had concerns about the logistics of dealing with right-to-know requests for the recordings.
The change to expressing outright support for body cameras surely reflects two significant developments — first, the heightened national, state and local attention on law enforcement accountability that followed the killing of George Floyd last May, and then the recent roughly one-month trial conducted by the Police Department in outfitting six officers and three cruisers with cameras and related technology.
With regard to the trial, Russo’s report to the committee showed that the officers involved gave very favorable ratings of the equipment on ease of use, reliability and other functionality aspects. Interestingly, his report did not discuss — nor did the committee inquire — how using the technology impacted the officers’ performance of their duties, though it seems a fair assumption that he would have reported a less-than-positive reception.
As for the increased focus on accountability and transparency, it was clear from the chief’s discussion how important he understands this to be. In addition to discussing the body cameras proposal, he discussed various other initiatives the Police Department has underway to increase training and standards to address any implicit bias and related issues, and Dragon stated he is also seeking new ways, despite the current shortage of mental health providers in the area, to tie mental health services in with the department’s law enforcement responsibilities. These are all welcome developments, and Russo deserves credit for embracing them.
There is a catch, however; and not surprisingly, it is cost. Russo estimates the preferred body and in-car camera option would have a first-year cost of close to $300,000 and an annual cost thereafter of about $135,000. Because the Legislature is considering some bills that might provide funding for investment in body and dashboard cameras, he and Dragon recommended that the city wait to see what develops in Concord before proceeding. The committee agreed and the proposal has now been put on hold.
There is sense in taking some time to identify other sources of funding, particularly since, as Russo emphasized, the cost of the body cameras proposal must be considered along with the increased costs he anticipates to meet new training and standards. Even so, we hope there are other sources of grants or other funding — even beyond state and federal government sources — the city might identify to assist at least with the up-front investment.
As for the ongoing annual cost, it may not be as high as Russo estimated. Well over half of that cost is earmarked for a new paralegal position to handle an expected increase in right-to-know requests. Yet Dragon, Russo and City Attorney Thomas Mullin made clear to the committee that the increased load of right-to-know requests the city is currently processing means they’ll be requesting funding for that position in the upcoming budget even if the body cameras proposal doesn’t proceed. Thus, the full anticipated cost of that position should seemingly not be attributable to only body camera video requests that might arise, which would reduce the anticipated annual cost of the proposal.
Even so, there’s clearly a price tag to adopting body cameras, investing in heightened training and other steps. But if assuring that law enforcement in Keene is as transparent, accountable and free of implicit bias as possible is indeed a priority to the city, it should find ways to fund them.