Baton Rouge Police Department officials said they’re committed to expanding the department’s body camera program to cover all officers — but with a grant application still pending and questions hanging over state and local budgets, just how to pay for it remains unclear.
The department has applied for up to $600,000 in federal grant money to pay for the cameras but won’t hear back about the grant until December, Police Chief Carl Dabadie said Wednesday afternoon at a meeting of the city-parish body camera committee, and officials with the East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President’s Office said they weren’t sure yet if there’d be any money left in the city’s budget to put toward cameras.
The exact price tag for expanding use of body cameras remains up in the air, Dabadie said.
The department used roughly $105,000 in reserve funds to launch the 10-month pilot program in October.
Nonetheless, Dabadie said after the meeting, it’s a question of when, not if, the program in the Police Department’s 1st District is expanded to officers across the department.
“I have no doubt we’re all going to be wearing body cameras,” Dabadie said.
Lt. Steve Wilkinson, who oversees in-car and body camera programs for the department, told the task force that 1st District patrol officers recorded about 8,500 body camera videos in the past 30 days.
The 1st District covers the area north of Florida Boulevard to Evangeline Street and Airline Highway to the north and east.
Wilkinson said his office has seen a significant jump in the number of requests for video from people outside the department, growing from 228 in the first quarter of 2015 to 599 in the first quarter of this year.
Included in those numbers, Wilkinson said, are requests for body and dashboard camera videos filed by prosecutors, defense attorneys and court officials.
Processing the extra videos shot by officers’ body cameras will require hiring four additional technicians and another legal adviser, Wilkinson said, adding to the cost of rolling out the body camera program to the entire department.
Some, including the department’s legal adviser Kim Brooks, have argued the body cameras would lead to a deluge of public records requests for the videos, potentially swamping the department’s staff assigned to handle requests and exposing people interacting with officers to possible invasions of privacy.
But if there’s a large public appetite for the videos, it hasn’t appeared yet.
“Not really,” Brooks told the task force when asked if she’d seen a large spike in public records requests since the body camera pilot program began. The majority of requests for the footage, Brooks said, have come from civil attorneys representing people involved in car wrecks.
In fact, Brooks said, she “actually couldn’t recall any requests” for body camera footage from members of the general public.
Nonetheless, Brooks said she still anticipates a large volume of public requests for the videos as the program grows — though state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Democratic, former East Baton Rouge Paris Metro Council member and the chairwoman of the task force, was skeptical.
“But we’re dealing with facts here,” Marcelle said, “and it isn’t happening.”
Wilkinson, whose division handles making copies of the videos, also said privacy or confidentiality issues haven’t been a problem, largely because nearly all the body camera videos depict scenes captured on public streets.
“We’ve not had a reason to go in and redact anything,” Wilkinson said.
The sheer volume of videos being recorded, though, does pose a potential problem, especially because state public records laws require the department to retain the videos for a minimum of three years. Any videos used as evidence in court likely will be kept even longer.
In the past 30 days, Wilkinson said, the 8,500 videos captured by 1st District patrol officers filled more than 1 terabyte (or 1,000 gigabytes) of computer storage space. For comparison, a two-hour movie generally takes up roughly 1 or 1.5 gigabytes of space.
“If we roll those out to the other districts, we can safely expect to multiply that number by at least four,” Wilkinson said.
How much that will add to the cost of the program isn’t yet clear. Wilkinson said two of the three body camera vendors the department is considering — Taser and Motorola — offer extensive cloud-based storage options.
The L-3 Communications cameras the department used at the beginning of the pilot program employed the same 1st District on-site computer servers as the dashboard cameras in patrol cars, Wilkinson said. But those servers would need to more than double their storage space to handle the body camera footage.
First District officers are now testing body cameras made by Taser. Before settling on which product to use departmentwide at the end of the pilot program in August, Dabadie said, officers also are planning to test Motorola-made cameras in the field.
Questions also linger about the Police Department’s policies on the use of cameras — including the contentious question of whether police officers will be allowed to review the videos before writing their reports.
Dabadie said Wednesday that the department’s provisional policy allows officers to review the footage, but the final body camera policies remain a work in progress.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux also has said he intends to put body cameras on his deputies within the next two years, though his office also is looking for grants and other sources of money to pay for the equipment.
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.