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Spokane County to study cost of body cameras for sheriff’s office

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 1, 2020

Spokane County Commissioners authorized a work group to study data storage and body cameras on Monday. Purchasing body cameras, software, storage and employees to manage the program could cost more than $600,000 a year, but advocates argue they increase transparency and improve interactions with the public.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Commissioners authorized a work group to study data storage and body cameras on Monday. Purchasing body cameras, software, storage and employees to manage the program could cost more than $600,000 a year, but advocates argue they increase transparency and improve interactions with the public. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

At the urging of the Sheriff’s Office, Spokane County Commissioners have authorized a new work group to consider purchasing body cameras and a data management system that would store footage and other evidence.

In a meeting on Monday, the Spokane County Commissioners authorized the work group to look into both data storage costs and costs associated with body cameras and public records that could be generated from them.

Spokane County Sheriff Office Chief Administrative Officer Todd Mielke told commissioners in a presentation the county already needs to purchase a new digital evidence management system as soon as possible, and at least one of the companies that provides that technology also offers stun guns and body cameras with the purchase of storage. The company that previously provided Spokane County’s digital evidence management system went out of business.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who supports purchasing body cameras, argued the new data storage software was an opportunity to purchase technology both deputies and the public need.

“We’ve been wanting to go this direction since 2007 and I really think this is the perfect opportunity to solve two problems,” he said.

The county has discussed body cameras several times in the last decade, but has not purchased them over concerns about public records and redaction requirements, storage of the data and cost concerns.

According to the presentation, the system would include cameras, stun guns, software and storage and would cost about $330,000 a year. Mielke said the cost to the county could end up being closer to $660,000 a year due to the additional public records staff and legal assistance to cover body camera public records requests and comply with privacy laws. He said it could also create some savings, because the sheriff’s office would now purchase stun guns through this contract instead of separately. The additional $330,000 is for an estimated three employees and part of an attorney’s time.

Mielke said those numbers could change as staff talk to more police and sheriff departments about costs, and receives proposals from companies that could offer these services.

He said the county is also researching purchasing a digital evidence management system on its own, and the work group will look at several proposals, some bundling multiple services and how much they could cost over multiple years.

County commissioners said they were open to the request, but still had concerns about costs, saying video public records requests can be far more time-consuming for county employees and can end up costing far more than other requests.

“I think it’s twofold,” said County Commissioner Mary Kuney. “We’ve got to look at the cost, but we’ve also got to look at the transparency to the public and internal controls for the deputies.”

While most large city police departments in Washington, including the city of Spokane, have already purchased body cameras, counties have been slower to adopt the technology. The four most populous counties in the state, King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane, have not yet purchased them, though both Pierce and Snohomish are considering purchasing them next year.

Pierce County has both dashboard and body cameras included in its 2021 budget proposal, and the program is estimated to cost around $3 million.

According to its 2021 draft budget proposal, the equipment, setup and licensing fees are expected to cost around $2 million, and the public records staff, attorney costs and technology specialist who would oversee the program are expected to cost around $1 million.

According to The Everett Herald, Snohomish County is considering a $500,000 investment in body cameras, a move that won praise from the Snohomish County Sheriff.

Lincoln County, which shares a border with Spokane County and has about one-tenth of the population, has had body cameras for about 10 years.

Lincoln County Sheriff Wade Magers said the cameras have been successful and have helped with deputies’ interactions with the public because the deputies know they are being recorded, and so does the public. He said the Sheriff’s Office has also had to develop privacy policies to ensure that people are protected when having a normal interaction with a deputy, such as when a deputy responds for a wellness check or an animal problem.

“They’re very positive when they’re used in a good way with sound policy,” he said.

Magers said storing the amount of data generated from body cameras and dealing with redactions and public records requests can be a challenge, but it usually is not an issue at the small department.

He said most people who file requests in Lincoln County only want the footage of the incident they were involved in. He said larger departments, however, may have many more requests, much larger requests, and more footage overall to manage. He said Spokane County’s body camera cost would likely be significantly higher than Lincoln County’s.

“We’re apples and oranges,” he said.

Commissioner Al French said he is looking forward to the numbers and cost analysis the work group comes up with, but he is concerned about the county’s ability to pay for the re-occurring costs around body cameras, such as public records staffing costs and associated software subscriptions.

“If it was just about buying cameras, we would have done that years ago,” French said. “It’s much more than that.”

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he’s open to body cameras as well, and does believe they increase transparency, but he does have some concerns about the county’s ability to pay for the technology when it already has deficit issues and other rising expenses. Spokane County may already need to dip into reserves to balance the 2021 budget.

“It’s good all the way around, but we need to make sure we can make the numbers balance and be able to afford it at the end of the day,” Kerns said.

Knezovich acknowledged a body camera program could be expensive, but said it could also help resolve lawsuits and reduce ambiguity when deputies are accused of wrongdoing, because there would be video that law enforcement could review to find evidence.

“It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not inexpensive, but again, I think the benefit to the community and the benefit to the deputies as far as transparency goes is worth it,” he said.

Knezovich urged members of the public to email him their thoughts on body cameras, saying he would like public input before the county makes any decisions. His email is sheriff@spokanecounty.org.

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