Bobby Webre

Body cameras for about 100 deputies in the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office will be rolling out in the first quarter of 2021 in Donaldsonville and other parts of the west bank with more to follow elsewhere in the parish, the sheriff said.

Sheriff Bobby Webre said about 20 patrol deputies in western Ascension will receive the V300 model Motorola brand cameras first, part of a step-by-step process to have them in place among the patrol and traffic division officers next year.

Webre, who is in his first full term as sheriff after taking over from former longtime Sheriff Jeff Wiley and winning election last year, said the cameras will provide accountability for his deputies’ actions but also a measure of safety for them.

“I’ve got deputies now, deputies and supervisors, asking when we are going to get this,” Webre said Wednesday. “So really the pendulum has swung to where you’ve really got deputies and supervisors wanting this equipment.”

Webre said his deputies feel the cameras will protect them and serve as potential defense of their actions and source of evidence — “not only with accountability with our officers but accountability with our citizens. They expect certain reactions from us. We should expect certain reactions from our citizens.”

Overall, the cameras, docking stations and other related equipment are expected to cost $500,000, but Webre said his office is still working on the requirements, methods and costs of long-term storage for what’s expected to be multiple terabytes of video data.

Video footage of officers in action, often by the general public, have increasingly proven pivotal in disputes in Baton Rouge and other parts of the country over police enforcement and helped fueled outrage over deadly police encounters, in particular, with Black people and other minorities.

Perhaps most well-known in Baton Rouge, cellphone video of two Baton Rouge Police officers engaged a struggle to handcuff Alton Sterling while on the ground outside the Triple S Food Mart in July 2016 helped drive public outrage and days of protests.

Officer body cameras sometimes provide another angle and a longer look at incidents than what can be recorded by the public reacting to quick-moving events.

On the other hand, just since July, three people have died at the hands of law enforcement agencies in East and West Baton Rouge parishes without any body camera footage available, sparking criticism from the families of those killed.

During Webre’s run for office last year, said he would consider the implementation of the cameras.

On Wednesday, Webre said he felt now is the time to put body cameras into use not only because his deputies want them but also because the cameras fit within his drive to improve accountability, including by rewriting internal policies and seeking third-party accreditation of the department.

Technology for the cameras also has improved over the past several years, Webre added, while his discussions with local leaders have led him to see the support for the cameras in community.

Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan said local leaders had been asking Webre to put cameras on the deputies who police the west bank city under contract and the mayor welcomed the sheriff’s new plans. Sullivan said city leaders want to work with law enforcement but also make sure video is available if an incident happens.

The Donaldsonville City Council on Tuesday agreed to contribute $109,000 to help pay for the cameras in the city. The cost could be spread out over four years, Sullivan said, and comes as the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t applied contractually available cost-of-living increases on its Donaldsonville operation for several years.

Assumption and St. James parishes, the other two parishes in the 23rd Judicial District with Ascension, already have body cameras on their sheriff’s deputies.

In Assumption, deputies have had them since 2014, a spokesman said. St. James deputies have had the latest version of their body cameras for about two years. An earlier brand a few years prior had equipment problems and was discontinued, St. James Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. said.

Other sheriff’s offices in the metro area don’t have body cameras, including those East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes. Officials in East Baton Rouge and Livingston say they are looking at use of the cameras.

The Baton Rouge Police Department has used body cameras since 2017, but the department exempts SWAT officers to protect specialized tactics.

In 2016, a federal survey found about 80 percent of the country's largest police departments and 58 percent of the largest sheriff's offices had acquired body cameras but numbers were far lower for smaller departments.

About 56% of sheriff’s offices that were close to the size of Ascension’s department of about 350 officers had acquired the cameras, the survey found.

The federal survey found the cost of the cameras and their long-term storage were the top reasons departments didn’t get body cameras. Right behind those reasons, however, were questions about privacy and public records requests.

V300 body cameras operate for more than 12 hours, have 128 gigabytes of memory and can be uploaded wirelessly, Webre said.

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