Money holding up body cameras for deputies

The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department has found a model of body-worn cameras that it prefers, five months after testing uncovered glitches in a different model it was considering.

Body-worn cameras record interactions between police officers and the public during an arrest or investigation, with video available should it be needed to verify the accounts of an event.

Sheriff Matt Myers said the benefits of using the cameras include improving public trust, transparency and the department’s image, as well as making the community feel safer.

“These cameras protect the community and the deputies,” Myers said.

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But when Capt. Brandon Slate outlined the department’s recommendation to equip deputies with the system, members of the Bartholomew County Council — which controls county government’s purse strings — said it’s unlikely that money will be available to go forward with a purchase at this time.

In his original 2017 budget proposal, Myers sought $555,000 to purchase 30 Motorola body cameras, as well as about a fourth of the funds necessary to replace outdated police radios.

But due to technical glitches that developed during a two-month testing phase, Myers in October tabled his request for body cameras. In December, the county used money from its telecommunications fund to finance a five-year, lease-purchase agreement for the radios.

The proposal presented during Monday night’s council work session called for the purchase of 35 Axon body cameras manufactured by Taser International, the same company that provides police and sheriff’s departments with stun guns.

During a nearly one-hour presentation, Sheriff’s Capt. Brandon Slate said the Axon cameras, as well as 35 replacement stun guns, unlimited video storage, and a number of related accessories and services, could be obtained for $248,393 over five years.

That represents a five-year savings of $173,495 — or $34,699 a year — compared to the Motorola cameras originally recommended last year, Slate said.

“I love all this,” councilman and former sheriff Mark Gorbett said. “But there’s a lot of needs right now, and that’s going to be a big burden on us for the next three months.”

Pressing needs identified by county council members include additional Courthouse security and staff requested by judges, rebuilding an information technology staff, and new jail expenses caused by a state mandate to house all low-level felons.

Gorbett also said he believes replacing worn-out weapons such as service revolvers and stun guns is a larger priority for the sheriff’s department than body cameras.

In addition, Bartholomew County commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said during the meeting that he’s not convinced rapidly advancing technology won’t create a better and more affordable product in the near future.

“How does the council know that now is the time to pull the trigger,” Kleinhenz asked. “Are we to the point where we feel comfortable investing (in body cameras)?”

“I would say no,” said Gorbett, who added that he worries about additional, unexpected expenses coming up in the future.

The Columbus Police Department in 2015 invested $66,000 for 65 body cameras and a video storage system, and all patrol officers were wearing them in the field by the end of that year.

Although Myers said ill feelings in general toward law enforcement agencies largely stem from police-involved events in other parts of the country, councilman Chris Ogle specifically mentioned the Cary Owsley case Monday evening.

The April 2013 death of the Columbus man, which was ruled a suicide, resulted in several lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by local investigators and public officials. About three months after Owsley’s death, Gorbett suspended three of his deputies for what he labeled as errors in judgment, having violated department procedures and failing to manage the death scene correctly or properly preserve evidence.

While neither the current or former sheriff commented on that case, Myers says it’s important to let county residents know his department has done its homework, and presented its recommendations to the council.

“If these cameras are important to local residents, they should contact council members and let them know,” Myers said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, council president Laura DeDomenic said she felt the county should not take on new expenditures right now.

Instead, the council will present all of its spending needs _ including body cameras _ to a consultant who will assist in developing a priority list in time for the 2018 budget talks in August, she said.

At a glance

The Bartholomew County Council will present all of its spending needs to a consultant who will assist in developing a priority list in time for the 2018 budget talks in August.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.