A proposed ordinance mandating body cameras on all Baton Rouge police officers is still on ice while council members continue to debate whether they are comfortable imposing a funding mandate on the city law enforcement agency.
The Mayor-President’s Office, the Metro Council and the Police Department all agreed body cameras are a good idea and one worth pursuing.
But at issue is funding and timing.
On Wednesday, the Metro Council agreed to defer for two weeks a vote to make the new technology mandatory for all police officers by Jan. 1. But the deferral came after a failed attempt to pass the ordinance.
The council voted 6-2 in favor of the ordinance, short of the seven votes needed for passage. Council members John Delgado and Trae Welch voted against the measure. Council members C. Denise Marcelle, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Donna Collins-Lewis, Ronnie Edwards, Buddy Amoroso and Ryan Heck voted in favor of the motion. Scott Wilson, Chandler Loupe, Joel Boé and Tara Wicker were not present for the meeting.
Delgado and Welch said they both support the concept of cameras but had concerns about the cost burden being placed on city police.
Delgado also had concerns about privacy issues created by camera footage.
“Can someone request footage for every day of every officer?” Delgado asked. “If I see my neighbor get pulled over on the side of the road, can I request that? The idea that this data becomes a public record gives me some concern about their privacy and personal safety.”
Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. told the Metro Council that he was uncomfortable about being forced to carve out funding for the program without the promise of additional funds. He said a funding mandate would mean he would have to cut other resources, like manpower.
“I do want the body cameras; law enforcement is moving in that direction,” Dabadie said. “But if you’re going to make a mandate for me to have them, then in my opinion you need to mandate a way to pay for them.”
Dabadie said it was unclear how much it would cost to outfit the roughly 300 uniform patrol officers with cameras and pay for servers and storage space necessary to process the footage. He estimated it could cost millions of dollars.
A pilot program of 100 cameras is in progress to test the system and get a sense of how much a larger-scale program would cost.
The pilot program is costing the department $104,000, Dabadie said. But the cameras won’t be purchased until later this year. Dabadie said the program will help them test the waters and shape policy related to the cameras. He said he wants to test them for about eight to 12 months before expanding the program across the entire department.
Marcelle noted there are federal grants available to cities across the country for the technology.
She also said the technology is important enough that City Police and the Mayor’s Office, which sets the police budget, should make it a financial priority. “I submit to you that these cameras could save us money on lawsuits,” she said, referring to settlements paid from excessive-force lawsuits against the Police Department. “This is one way to get rid of the bad apples.”
Marcelle has been pushing for the body cameras for several months, starting last fall amid growing confrontations between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri, after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. At about the same time, a Baton Rouge police officer, Michael Elsbury, resigned after some of his racist text messages surfaced, suggested he enjoyed arresting “thugs.”
In Louisiana, both New Orleans and Thibodaux police departments have body cameras.