Twenty-six body cameras will roll out in March

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Six body camera experts came to Nashville last week to confer with MNPD, Public Defender, District Attorney, and the Community Oversight Board.

Mayor John Cooper arranged the conference after District Attorney Glen Funk released a report in October 2019 estimating his costs would be around $30 million every year. 

The Funk report concluded that courts would need $2.4 million, the Public Defender’s office $4 million, and total costs for integrating video into the criminal justice system would run $36 million every year.

MNPD expects to spend $12-$13 million by 2024 on the technology. Their budget request for next year includes salaries for 8 civilian video techs to log and redact video and 24 sergeants to manage bodycam issues at every precinct. That would cost about $2 million a year.

Memphis PD spends $1.8 million a year on their bodycam program.

The experts told Metro officials that Funk’s estimates were too high. Next month Metro officials will visit Memphis. Memphis police have worn bodycams since 2016. Cooper told the Tribune he hopes Metro’s costs can be lowered considerably.  

MNPD was going to roll out 26 cameras last November but Funk’s report delayed the deployment. This week the Mayor’s office announced those cameras will be on the street by March for traffic, DUI enforcement, and drug interdiction. Another 20 bodycams will be deployed in May 2020. 

In the meantime, criminal justice reform advocates are saying it’s taking way too long to put bodycams on the street.

“Since the Driving While black report was released on October 25, 2016, 1,183 days have passed and Nashville has had three mayors, three budgets, three RFPs, two police-related shootings, over $25 million allocated to the MNPD, countless excuses, and very few body cameras,” said Rep John Ray Clemmons (D, Nashville). “We respectfully understand the challenges, but our city’s patience has run out,” he added. 

Clemmons introduced a bill last week in the House that would require full deployment of Metro’s bodycams by February 10, 2021.

Cooper’s office said the “beta” testing will be evaluated before a full deployment of bodycams begins. MNPD says it plans to deploy about 1500 bodycams and 880 dash cameras by the end of 2021. When all 2380 cameras are deployed they will record about 13,000 hours of video every day. 

Editing Costs Could 

Be Lower

If all police video is logged and run through redaction software to blur witnesses faces and protect victims’ privacy, it would take a lot of time and money. Funk’s office estimated they will hire at least 107 people at a cost of $14.5 million.

But only about 10% of police video would actually end up in court as evidence. 

The vast majority of footage would just be stored on the servers and eventually erased. How much video needs to be screened, logged, and redacted is a knotty problem. Wahoo, Nebraska and Arlington, Virginia scrapped their bodycam programs because the after-capture costs were too high.

Witnesses, Undercover Cops, Suspects, and Victims

Bodycam footage can make strange bedfellows and people caught on camera have reason to protect their privacy by hiding their identity. Blurring faces and tweaking audio can do that. But it is frightfully expensive. And it’s an unintended consequence of a system that is supposed to promote transparency and trust in the police and criminal justice system. It may end up doing just the opposite if too much is hidden.

One way to save on redaction costs is to require attorneys or members of the public to sign a protective order promising not to release unredacted police video publicly until after the courts adjudicate a case. 

But some police video would have to be redacted or, alternatively, judges could close their courtrooms to the general public. For example, suppose a child endangerment case involved video evidence of a naked child. Metro will need a policy to protect the privacy of victims or at least have a way to decide what video can be released on a case-by-case basis. And that could be a contentious process. Victims, MNPD, attorneys, and the courts all have an interest in how those decisions are made. 

When Will Bodycams 

Be Turned On? 

At a press conference last week, John Buntin, Cooper’s new Director of Policy and Community Safety, told reporters that city officials need to understand workflows in various departments, what resources would be required, and what policies will govern how video is captured and used.

“Being as clear as possible when the cameras are turned on is a critical part of the policy,” Buntin said. He said in Los Angeles cameras are rolling whenever there is an enforcement action or investigation going on. What Metro policy will be is not determined yet but having one doesn’t mean it will always be followed. 

The Memphis PD disciplined 48 officers in 2018 for turning their cameras off. One such incident led to a $10 million lawsuit against the city by Martavious Banks, 25, who was shot during a traffic stop in South Memphis on Sept. 17, 2018.

However, there is evidence that body cameras have had a positive effect. The Commercial Appeal reported a decline in internal affairs complaints between 2016-2019.

Who Will Decide Who Gets Access to Police Video?

To view police video will not cost anything but copying it will. MNPD’s public records requests are free for the first hour and after that there is a charge based on the hourly wage Metro pays the employee who fulfills the request. 

The multi-million dollar bodycam program Metro is about to launch may wind up creating barriers for the people who need it the most.

How, for example, would a defendant view the video of the arrest if he or she is sitting in jail and can’t afford bail? Could MNPD refuse to release video because its officers will be testifying against the defendant at trial? Policy, practice, or laws that limit the availability of footage could cause more problems than they solve.