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Body Cameras Will Not Be Cheap

San Francisco Public Press
 — Apr 30 2015 - 3:00pm

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Board of Supervisors president London Breed and police Chief Greg Suhr pledged Thursday to put a body camera on every officer who walks city streets.

That makes the city the latest of many nationwide where leaders are deciding that the benefits of outfitting police with body cameras outweigh the myriad costs. (See Mayor Lee’s press release below.)

“We would be the largest police department in the nation to do this,” said Officer Albie Esparza, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department.

City Hall will buy 1,600 to 1,800 cameras for an estimated $6.6 million over the next two years, Lee said at a press conference. That works out to at least $3,600 per camera, including the costs of storing the video and hiring additional staff to manage the effort. Many cities are outfitting officers with body cameras to increase accountability, in the wake of high-profile instances of alleged and documented police brutality, which have caused widespread public outcry.

Lee’s new working group will investigate the best practices for using the technology and, when members of the public request the footage, for guarding the privacy of people who appear in it.

“We go into homes when people are having medical problems and domestic violence problems. We have all these laws that prohibit us from releasing certain info,” Esparza said, “If we do this, we do this right.”

The announcement comes shortly after Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi pledged to start equipping guards in all San Francisco jails with cameras, in light of allegations that some have forced inmates to fight each other and placed bets on who would win. Mirkarimi said his 30-camera pilot program will cost $50,000.

In Baltimore — where protests mounted after Freddie Gray, 25, suffered spinal damage while in police custody and later died in hospital — city staff have studied the feasibility of giving cameras to the 2,500 officers with routine public interactions, and estimated that doing so would cost $6.8 million in the first year. That pencils out to about $2,700 per officer. Just storing the footage would cost $1.3 million, the study’s authors projected. Other costs included hiring staff to maintain the equipment and redact visual information before handing videos over to members of the public.

In Berkeley, which is considering a similar program, equipping 100 officers and paying to store the footage online would cost $129,000 annually, or $1,290 per officer, based on estimates from City Manager Christine Daniel. She said each officer would spend about two hours per week reviewing and labeling footage, time they could not use to perform core duties like patrolling or investigating crimes. Department-wide, she said, that would amount to 10,400 hours, or the equivalent of five full-time officers.

President Barack Obama asked Congress in December to authorize $75 million to help cities buy cameras, but it so far has not complied.

So, for now at least, cities are on their own to figure out how to foot the bill.