Police car and body cameras to be upgraded

Lt. Kenneth Rippy demonstrates having to manually activate the out-of-date car cameras that most of the Portland Police Department's cars are currently equipped with.

Leader photo by Terry McCormick

The Portland City Council heard a request from Portland Police Chief Anthony Heavner at the Sept. 3 meeting to upgrade the city's car and body cameras.

At the regularly scheduled meeting that followed, the council agreed to include funding for the new cameras that would be added to the capital outlay loan that city had budgeted for new police radios, a new police car and fire equipment.

City Finance Director Doug Yoeckel said that the new radios that the city included in the budget ($170,000) have already come in and will be paid for through the capital outlay note. Yoeckel indicated that with the Police Department's need to replace the failing cameras, he would prefer to fund the cameras now along with the radios and other projects in one note, rather than having to have a separate loan.

"The radios have come in, so I need to get the capital outlay note and in doing that, I wanted to address these other two issues to see if we want to include those in it. We had put in there and budgeted our police car at $35,000 and some turnout gear and other equipment for the Fire Department another 25,000, making a total capital outlay note of about $230,000," Yoeckel said.

Heavner told the council at the work-study session before the regular council meeting that the Police Department has an issue regarding the current car and body cameras, which are out of date and don't always function as designed. Heavner said that some of the cameras have issues that cannot be fixed, due to the software updates and parts no longer being available.

"I only have four cameras that are currently serviceable by the manufacturer if I need parts. The software for those systems commonly need updating. It's just like the software for your computers. Those software updates aren't available anymore," Heavner told the council members. "I've got a lot of cameras that still work, but they don't work like they're supposed to. An officer has to manually activate the camera when they get out of the car during a traffic stop or whatever. There's no way I can really go back and fix that because it won't do the programming updates any longer. The time and date stamps on the footage are not there, because you can't keep them updated. I guess the software has expired or the licensing or things of that nature.

"They can be manually operated and they function now, but not like they're supposed to. If one breaks, I can't get parts to fix it. Some of those things are six, seven, eight years old. So we started looking at what it would cost to kind of replace it in one of two ways."

To equip every officer with a new body camera and every car with a new camera as well would cost more than $200,000, Heavner told the council. Heavner said that he would prefer not to go to only body camera, because they do not show anything until the officer makes contact with a driver during a traffic stop. The car camera shows what takes place while a traffic stop is being initiated. Heavner told the council that the city of Goodlettsville, which has more than 100 officers and 100 cars, went to body cameras only as a cost-saving measure.

"One is going to body cameras only, which is a move Goodlettsville has made. It's not something I'm really in favor of. Yes, I like body cameras, but they don't show the full picture. Most of our interaction comes from the public in traffic stops and things of that nature. A body camera is not going to capture that footage until you get out of the car and go up and approach the vehicle. Just looking at replacing it, it's some pretty big numbers," Heavner said. "We're looking at $140,000 to $200,000, whichever way you go, moving forward to get that upgraded. And that is with five-year service contracts that would go along with it. We just kind of reached out to see what kind of ballpark we looking at. I got some numbers and sent them to Drew (Jennings) the other day, and the mayor and Doug, just so we can all kind of get on the same page."

Another part of the issue with the car and body cameras is storage space. Currently, the department stores all video from the cameras on disks and has to purchase new space regularly. The new cameras, if purchased, would provide cloud storage space and eliminate the need for the department to have to be responsible for continuing to buy storage download the footage onto it.

"We definitely need to get something fixed, however we go, with the body cameras or the car cameras or both. There is a package they sent that includes both, and that's your $200,000 number," Heavner said. "That would be every car and every officer would have a body camera with uploadable storage. Which is another issue.

"When you get into body camera footage and car camera footage we buy two terabyte servers on a regular basis to be able to store that data and keep it in the evidence file so we'll have it in the future should be we need to go back and get it. We don't ever destroy any of that footage. It's all kept. Cloud storage … is the wave of the future and the way to go to try and take some of the burden off Chris (Newton) and developing a system to be able to do that, and keep costs down. That's some of the things we're looking at. It's a problem that's going to have to be addressed."

Currently, with officers having to activate the car cameras manually, it can also become a safety issue, Heavner pointed out.

"They do function but not like they're supposed to. It's all dependent upon the officer, and sometimes the officer just doesn't have time. Usually, you turn the blue lights on, and it's just supposed to happen. That's not what's happening here. Because of the software updates and all that, they're having to manually turn all that stuff on, and depending upon what's going on, if you've got people running from the vehicle and all that, you just don't have time. They have to deal with the situation they're presented with. It's an officer safety thing from my standpoint to have that footage, if something were to happen to the officer on that stop, where somebody flees the vehicle. If they didn't have the presence of mind to hit the record vehicle before they came out of that car, we're not going to have that information, and that could be their life in the balance."

Alderman Brian Harbin recommended that the city fund the new cameras, pointing out that one lawsuit from a potential tragic instance would likely cost the city more than the cost of the new cameras.

The next step is for the Police Department to solicit bids from multiple companies on the cost of the camera and storage equipment and bring those back to the mayor and council for approval.

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