CORVALLIS, Ore. — For nearly a year, 55 body-worn cameras have been sitting in charging docks in the Law Enforcement Center in Corvallis.
Ideally, the cameras would be fitted to each of the Corvallis Police Department’s uniformed officers, who would wear them on their chests during their shifts, then return them to their docking stations, where they’d automatically upload video to a cloud-based server.
Once that happens, most of the officer’s work is done. But that’s where a majority of the work would begin for the Benton County District Attorney’s Office, and that’s why the cameras are still sitting on the shelf.
District Attorney John Haroldson and other Benton County law enforcement officials say they’re in favor of body-worn cameras and it’s only a matter of time before every officer on patrol in the county is wearing one. The major issue comes down to cost — not for the cameras themselves, but for creating a proper system to handle the data surge that comes with them.
“The body-worn cameras are a very useful and valuable tool in the investigative process, but there are costs associated with having a system that works that we need to be honest about,” Haroldson told the Benton County Budget Committee in April. “The consensus across the country is that they still don’t know what all of the costs are. The implications of body-worn cameras are being discovered as we move forward.”
Haroldson said for his office alone, the increased data coming from dozens of cameras could potentially create hundreds of hours of footage to review each week, severely impacting the workload for deputy district attorneys, whose work weeks sometimes already exceed 70 hours.
“Our deputy DAs have zero time to give,” Haroldson said. “We’re above capacity. Any additional time to add to body cameras would be time taken away from what we’re already doing.”
Haroldson stressed that even without body cameras, the district attorney’s office is already working above capacity. He estimated that reviewing footage would add an average of 2.5 hours per case. In 2016, the DA’s office reviewed about 3,000 cases for intake. Using that as a guide, the office would have to work a total of 7,500 hours per year, or about 144 hours per week — roughly equivalent to about four full-time employees whose sole task would be reviewing video.
“We must read the reports and we must review the footage,” Haroldson said. “If we have people working beyond full-time and we’re expected to take on hours and hours of digital work, we would have to cut back proportionately the time we’re spending on our current caseloads to take that on.”
A NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR A NEW TIME
The Corvallis Police Department purchased the 55 body cameras in June for about $30,000. Corvallis Police Chief Jon Sassaman said he wanted to be sure the department was ready “to pull the switch” as soon as possible.
“We know this is something the community expects. We know that it is good for transparency for law enforcement in Corvallis,” he said. “We know that it’s going to be one other element that helps build trust with our community. And as far as accountability, we’re fine with that as an organization. We have had cameras in our cars for years and I think those have been a great thing for us.”
Sassaman isn’t the only member of Benton County law enforcement in favor of moving forward. Philomath became one of the first police departments in the state to use the cameras in August 2014. Today, all nine of its officers use them. Oregon State Police troopers are also using body cameras as part of a pilot program.
The county’s second largest law enforcement agency, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, has also secured funding for the cameras.
“As sheriff I’m really looking forward to the day my deputies are wearing body cams,” said Benton County Sheriff Scott Jackson. “It helps build transparency and answers the community concerns. I think they’re a great thing and I think the evidentiary value is great.”
In fact, every agency in Benton County has expressed support in a collaborative on-body camera system, Haroldson said.
“Personally, I think that body-worn cameras are a wonderful idea, particularly given where we are in this point in history,” he said. “It’s important for the community to have confidence in the work their law enforcement does and it’s also important for the community to see that. All of our law enforcement agencies support that principle.”
And it’s not just Benton County agencies. In Linn County, the Albany Police Department has budgeted on-body cameras for the next year. The Sweet Home Police Department has been using on-body cameras since 2011. Lebanon police began using body-worn cameras in fall 2014.
Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny said it’s not just agencies in Benton and Linn counties that are looking at implementing body cameras soon.
“There’s probably not a police agency in the US that’s not looking into body cameras and whether to implement them,” he said. “New technology has always been a facet of law enforcement. But any new technology is going to have new costs that come with it.”
But Marteeny shares Haroldson’s concerns that the cost of body cameras goes well beyond the cameras themselves.
“The greatest cost-drivers are not the camera equipment; it’s the labor and storage,” he said, noting that the additional camera footage from Lebanon and Sweet Home have increased the labor for Linn County litigation. “However, at any given time we’re working in all kinds of areas to reduce our labor costs with other technologies. While labor has increased because of additional data, thus far we’ve been able to absorb that with savings in other areas.”
But the Albany Police Department and the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, which have not yet adopted body-worn cameras programs, typically constitute the greatest number of cases for Marteeny’s office.
“Body cameras are a great new technology,” he said, “But we need to make sure we implement them in a way that the taxpayers don’t get stuck with a big bill.”
Oregon legislators are facing a $1.6 billion revenue shortfall for the next biennium, causing uncertainty as to just how much support Benton County will be able to expect from the state. Coupled with salaries and wages expected to climb 2.5 percent a year during the biennium, it remains unclear whether the county will be able to take on the cost created by body cameras.
Despite the county’s population growth of about 16,000, the Benton County DA’s Office has not had a staff increase since 1991. Haroldson told the Budget Committee that even without the implementation of the body-worn camera program he would need an additional $1.03 million, which would fund an additional three deputy district attorneys and a paralegal. With a body-worn camera system, Haroldson estimated that number would need to double. But he’s aware the county’s budget is tight and commissioners likely wouldn’t be in a position to grant his full request.
“As a practical matter I don’t believe the resources are there to provide me with all the positions I will need. It’s really offering information about what the demands are and what would be needed to respond to those demands,” Haroldson said following the presentation. “If we’re going to do this right, it will cost the public. It calls for an investment. And I think we need to be completely transparent about what that means.”
If the county commissioners don’t approve the request for additional deputy district attorneys, it’s likely the office would be facing a “crisis,” Haroldson said. So he is considering cutting child dependency and child support enforcement and asking the Attorney General’s office to take all of Benton County’s cases. Child dependency is where the state takes in children who have been neglected or abused and holds the parents and/or guardians accountable. In addition, Haroldson is also looking into cut backs to criminal cases.
“I hope for the best, but in preparing for the most challenging scenario, I have to assess now what cases we will no longer be able to take,” he said. “We won’t have the bodies necessary to complete all of the same work and maintain a work environment that’s tolerable.”
If the office receives the initial three deputy DAs and paralegal as requested, Haroldson said it’s possible that the office could take on the additional work produced by the body camera systems.
“If we had three additional deputy DAs and a paralegal to take on the task of reviewing hours of video, we could begin to move forward with a need for periodic review to see how well we’re keeping up. But I would describe that as an extremely conservative starting point,” he said. “But even in that context there is a point where you get diminishing returns and you create an environment that has a heightened risk of making mistakes.”
THE RIGHT WAY
Corvallis Police Chief Sassaman and Benton County Sheriff Jackson have agreed to wait on implementing the body camera systems for their respective departments until they can work out memorandums of understanding on storage and staffing with the DA’s office.
“I know that we would be putting the greatest burden on their office,” Sassaman said. “And we know they’re an understaffed office. If we start creating greater demand that could impede their cases. The way I see it, if we we’re rowing really fast and the other side of the boat isn’t able to row equally, then we’re rowing in circles.”
“I want to take this slow and make sure we evaluate the entire system and answer John’s concerns and make sure we have a system in place to support it,” Jackson said. “I want to make sure when we do it, we do it right.”
Haroldson said he hopes to address the concerns of hundreds of police departments throughout the country that have implemented body camera programs without the proper infrastructure.
“The benefit of having our smallest agencies using them is that it’s smaller than if we went with our largest systems,” he said. “Because we didn’t know at the time these were being implemented, we got ahead of ourselves and didn’t implement memorandums of understanding and infrastructures. This has happened all over the country and in some cases it’s been much more difficult because larger agencies have started to use them.”
Haroldson said he hoped to draft the MOUs in the near future but he isn’t rushing to give the go-ahead on the body camera system until after the Board of Commissioners has made its decision on funding.
“I’m making sure the DA’s office has proper staffing and that we prepare ourselves for a responsible strategy for body cams,” he said. “It is my full intention to continue working with the budget committee and the Board of Commissioners to find a way to resolve our staffing challenges.”
County officials agree that the proper staffing, funding and infrastructure need to be in place before more agencies begin using body cameras.
“It seems to me we should’ve had this conversation about fiscal impact before (agencies began implementing body cameras),” Commissioner Annabelle Jaramillo told Haroldson following his presentation. “It seems like we’re going at this backward without knowing what the full costs are.”
Dennis Aloia, Benton County chief operating officer, agreed.
“I think there is a need for a system here,” Aloia said. “(Haroldson) is absolutely right; they haven’t added an extra deputy district attorney in 25 years and that’s not the case in most places.”
But Aloia expressed doubts as to whether the county budget could allow funding for six or even three deputy district attorneys.
“I don’t think we can do either, but we have to do something,” Aloia said.
County Commissioner Anne Schuster also had doubts as to whether funding would be available.
“Unless we can pull some rabbit out of our hat,” Schuster said, “I’m not sure how we’d come up with the money at this point.”
Haroldson’s presentation was one in a series of meetings of the Benton County Budget Committee held at the Sunset Building in Corvallis. The Budget Committee is scheduled to discuss the fairgrounds budget, outside agency funding requests and hold a public hearing on county budget.
The committee, which consists of the three county commissioners and three appointed citizens: David Dowrie, Phyllis Lee and Curtis Wright, is scheduled to adopt a proposed budget and maximum property tax rate on May 22 or 23. County Commissioners Jaramillo, Schuster and Xan Augerot will then vote to formally approve the budget.
Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com