Despite what city leaders admit is a “expensive” program, the Kent Police Department plans to outfit 101 patrol officers with body-worn cameras after a free six-month pilot project ends in May.
“It’s expensive, but it is the right thing for our community,” Mayor Dana Ralph said at a public forum April 18 at the Kent Police/Fire Training Center on the East Hill. “It is going to keep our officers and residents safer. Everyone behaves better when they are on camera. It’s like having your mom in the back seat of the car.”
It’s going to cost the city approximately $719,000 per year for the program, Assistant Chief Eric Hemmen said at the police community forum attended by about three dozen residents.
The City Council plans to pay for the body-worn cameras with revenue Kent receives from 11 red-light cameras that will be installed this summer at six major intersections. Drivers caught on camera running red lights will generate at least $1.5 million per year in revenue, according to police staff.
“We are going to roll this out as the money becomes available,” said Ralph, who promised during her mayoral campaign in 2017 that she would propose to outfit officers with body cameras. “We are committed it to it, just be patient.”
The city will pay about $386,000 in extra staff costs per year to hire a video technician to manage the 101 cameras; a prosecuting attorney to review video for court cases; and a administrator in the city clerk’s office to handle public disclosure requests and redaction of video. It will cost about $291,000 per year for the storage of video from 101 cameras and another $126,000 for equipment.
“It’s going to cost money, a lot of money,” Hemmen said.
One resident said she liked the technology, but asked if the money could be used to hire more officers rather than paying for body-worn cameras.
Hemmen answered that the mayor and council have approved hiring several more officers each year, so this program doesn’t take away from new hires, which are paid for out of the city’s general fund.
Ralph then responded that the police department remains understaffed.
“We will at some point come back to the community to say we need your help for more officers on the street,” the mayor said. “We don’t have a funding source for that.”
Kent voters in April 2018 rejected an increase in utility taxes to pay for more officers. The proposal would have increased the force to 180 members from 157.
As far as the pilot program for body-worns cameras by 10 officers, Police Chief Rafael Padilla gave it a positive review.
“The pilot is going very well,” Padilla said. “The police department piece is ready to go. There is no need to sell us on this. We want it, but it is extremely expensive.”
Arizona-based Axon, which also has an office in Seattle, provided the cameras and equipment to Kent for free during the pilot program. The company contracts with nearly 50 police forces in major cities to provide body cameras, with the largest purchase of 7,545 cameras by the Los Angeles Police Department, according to the Axon website.
The police departments in Seattle, Tukwila and Spokane each outfit their officers with body-worn cameras.
Hemmen said the cameras decrease use of force reports as officers won’t use force as much, reduce false complaints by residents and are supposed to improve behavior on both sides of the badge.
Officers push the camera to activate it on every call. Officers tell people they are being recorded by camera. They won’t use the camera when investigating sexual assault cases.
Padilla said each criminal case so far that has had body-worn camera video has resulted in pleas rather than going to trial. He said the cameras also will reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits.
Ralph said she received an email from a resident concerned about an interaction with an officer. When the mayor and resident reviewed video from the incident, the resident concluded there wasn’t an issue.
“We watched the video, and what they thought had happened, didn’t happen and we were able to show that to them in a respective manner,” Ralph said.
Patrol officers are expected to get the body-worn cameras later this year and the entire force will have them by mid-2020, Hemmen said.
Officers will receive four hours of training about when and how to use the cameras. Officers can be disciplined if they fail on a regular basis to activate the camera while on duty. Officers can review video before writing a case report. A supervisor will review any use of force incidents.
“I think we are going to be the linchpin,” Padilla said about an expansion of body-worn cameras to more police departments. “We have been very progressive historically with best practices. Colleagues in the valley will look at what we are doing.”