The program could begin rolling out by late Summer if funding is approved by Clark County Council
CLARK COUNTY — The Clark County Sheriff’s Office is preparing to move forward with a body-worn camera system as soon as this Summer, but it won’t come cheap.
During a work session on Wednesday morning, the Sheriff’s office, along with the county prosecutor and court system representatives detailed the potential hurdles facing a rollout of body-worn cameras, but all expressed complete support for the idea.
“I just want you to know that I am 100% behind this,” Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins told the Clark County Council before turning things over to Chief Criminal Deputy John Horch.
Horch added that “everybody in law enforcement at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is in favor of a body cam program.”
“They’re a valuable tool for several reasons,” added Horch. “It gives it a different picture of what occurred, audio and visual. It helps the prosecutor’s office, and helps litigation on false claims on different things, and it also shows the officers conduct.”
During a test last Fall, Horch noted that people being contacted by deputies also were up to 50 percent less likely to escalate a confrontation if they knew they were being recorded.
“Officers may or may not be changing their behavior, that hasn’t been proven overwhelmingly,” said Horch, “but one thing we do know is that when people are being videotaped, and audio, their behavior has changed quite a bit which helps us in terms of what happens from there.”
Unlike the Vancouver Police Department, which intends to roll out a fully formed police camera system within the next year, the sheriff’s office intends to roll theirs out in stages, likely with a third of deputies and patrol cars outfitted with body worn and dash cameras by late this Summer at the earliest, with another third early next year, and the balance to follow.
Atkins added that the sheriff’s office initially had some conversations with Vancouver Police about coordinating to make sure both departments were using the same type of equipment, but “it became apparent fairly quickly that they put together a work group and a task force in the community, and they went off in their own direction, which is certainly their right.”
The sheriff did add that there could be ongoing discussions about how the county might be able to help other, smaller police departments to implement similar systems under a payback agreement, in order to hopefully have policies and procedures for policing across the area as similar as possible.
Costs of transparency
With community pressure for cameras on police officers growing in the wake of a series of local shootings involving young black men, and the high-profile in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last Summer, it appears all but certain the programs will roll out sooner than later.
But doing so comes with some difficulties that won’t be easy, or cheap, to overcome.
The actual cost of equipment, data storage, bandwidth upgrades and training could reach $800,000, said Horch, with ongoing costs for the county as high as $2 million annually.
That includes additional personnel to manage the system, process public records requests, and review video evidence in the prosecutor’s office and indigent defense.
Chief Civil Deputy Kari Schulz said five new positions would be needed in the sheriff’s office, including three public information specialists just to handle requests for video.
“As much as we’d like to think that this is just a press the button, turn it on and everybody gets to go on their way,” said Schulz, “obviously nothing is that easy.”
The initial cost for those five positions would be around $200,000 for the remainder of this year, said Schulz, and between $400,000 and $500,000 each year going forward.
Schulz said each minute of video requires approximately 10 minutes to review and redact, along with making an exemption report, meaning a 45-minute video would take one person nearly a full working day to review.
Even during a 60-day test period late last year, which Horch noted “nobody even knew we were testing it,” the sheriff’s office received several public records requests.
Estimates were based on Seattle, which has processed thousands of hours of body camera video from hundreds of public record requests each month.
While voicing full support for the program, Councilor Gary Medvigy noted that the issues around public records requests will eventually need to be dealt with, likely at the legislative level.
“Right now we have basically people that make public records act requests universally, every week for great amounts of information,” Medvigy said. “That’s the real elephant in the room and the legislature needs to deal with that issue.”
Prosecuting costs will also increase
In addition to added costs for equipment, training, data storage and public record requests, Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik said his office anticipates seeking an additional $573,000 in 2022, and $544,000 in 2023 to hire more deputy prosecutors to look over video evidence in many cases.
“I think a good analogy would be just if every officer wrote a whole ton more in their report,” said Golik. “It’s just a lot more to look at on every case.”
Costs would also rise sharply for the county’s indigent defense department, with attorneys needing to examine far more evidence in many cases, potentially adding another half a million in annual expenses.
Golik’s office and Clark County Clerk Scott Webber said they supported efforts to roll out the camera program in stages, largely as a means of gauging possible added expenses over time.
Even with the added cost, police camera systems have been shown to often cut costs in other areas, including litigation, settlements, and the filing of lawsuits in the first place. The presence of visual evidence supplants hearsay, making it less likely that someone might accuse an officer of abusing their power.
Details on potential cost savings were not discussed during Wednesday’s work session.
Funding options to be examined
Also not discussed was how the county might pay for the increased expenses of the camera program, though Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien said she would like to explore methods of going to voters to get a sense of how they would like to approach it.
Councilor Temple Lentz suggested potentially creating a centralized public records department within the county to possibly save costs. Currently most departments handle their own public records requests separately.
No date was set to further discuss potential funding options. If approved, Schulz said it could take up to six months to finish hiring people before rolling out the first phase of the camera program.