Several central Arkansas police departments are considering buying body cameras for officers to wear. In light of several recent police incidents around the country, federal money is being directed toward helping equip agencies with the technology.
Captain Jay Kovach with the North Little Rock Police Department said as he picked up one of the devices, “What I would like to see is anytime an officer has contact with a citizen or is taking some type of police action, he just simply hits the button and is recording.”
The department began looking into body cameras three years ago.
“We actually started researching the need for camera systems as a training tool for a lot of the young officers, perhaps even use it for that officer that maybe gets more complaints than normal, but more importantly, a training tool for the younger officers. (It's a) great tool for us to go back and review how they interact with the public,” Kovach said.
When they first considered the cameras, North Little Rock could not purchase them due to budget constraints. Body cameras cost anywhere from $300 to $1200 dollars per unit.
Captain Kovach says even with federal funds now being made available, there is another challenge:
“The inexpensive part of this venture is buying the equipment. The expensive part is going to be the storage of the data that’s collected. It’s going to require us to purchase an independent server to store all that data or pay rental to a cloud fee. Depending on how many units you have, (it) could get very, very costly,” he said.
The main type of camera the department is looking at would be concealed within an officer’s radio on the chest. It is almost unnoticeable to the human eye.
“It’s a system that takes the place of the body mic, (that) the officers traditionally wear on their uniforms. It’s a little bit larger in size than a normal cell phone and about twice the thickness. It’s worn on the front of the uniform just as the body mics currently are. This acts as a camera and it takes the place of the body mic.”
President Barack Obama proposed a $263 million program in December to reform relations between police departments and communities nationwide. The grant would offer a total of $75 million over a three-year period. This would supply police departments across the country with more than 50,000 of the devices.
The North Little Rock department is now waiting on the federal grant money to come through before it can proceed in purchasing the technology.
The American Civil Liberties Union published a national report two years ago on police body cameras. Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar says they found both advantages and disadvantages to the technology.
“There are several concerns. The good point is that it provides accountability. There will be hard evidence if police abuse occurs. The other side, just like with dash cams, if there’s an accusation of police abuse, it can exonerate the officer,” Sklar said.
She says the ACLU is working on a case in the north Arkansas town of Dover, where a body camera would have been beneficial beyond video provided from a patrol car camera.
“A family of three, mother and son, were seriously abused by police. Only one dash cam was working, it was at night and got a very incomplete picture of what was going on,” Sklar said. “The other two somehow didn’t go on and so there’s no record. And it would have been very useful to have those body cams.”
Another concern Sklar has is privacy.
“There’s a very important question going on right now about when they should be on. Should they be on all the time, officer’s discretion, only when there’s an encounter with the member of the public? Well if that’s true, maybe they would turn it off.”
A recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology found that body-worn cameras reduced the use of force reports by roughly 50 percent. The research was based on a 12-month trial in Rialto, California. The study also showed that during the research period, complaints against an officer dropped 90 percent compared to that previous year.
Representatives say the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office and the Little Rock Police Department are also testing and researching different brands.
A spokesman for the Arkansas State Police Department says his agency is not considering buying body cameras since state troopers are equipped with dash cams and don’t typically make residential calls.