ST. LOUIS • A select group of police sergeants will be the first St. Louis police officers to be equipped with body cameras, starting next week.
For now it’s just a 90-day pilot program, but St. Louis police Chief Sam Dotson is hoping the move will serve as the beginning of a shift for his department — where the police union has traditionally opposed the use of in-car cameras, let alone attaching devices to officers.
The union contract shields officers from having to wear body cameras until the issue goes through a formal bargaining process. But Dotson said he doesn’t want to wait until that lengthy process concludes to begin trying out the devices.
So sergeants, who are exempt from the union contract, will be wearing them for 30 days at a time before giving them to other sergeants. In all, Dotson said he expected 90 of the department’s roughly 200 sergeants to get a chance to use them, beginning Monday.
“Early on, there is always a little resistance to technology,” Dotson said. “Ultimately, officers have embraced it. It used to be that police officers fought tooth and nail about having a radio tied to their hip, and now they won’t leave without one.”
Dotson told a group of sergeants during a training session Monday that he expects to begin negotiating with the police union while the sergeants begin using the cameras. The video will be used to investigate complaints and serious incidents, not for more mundane violations, he said.
Jeff Roorda, business manager for the officers union, said that had been a point of contention with in-car or dash cameras. He said some officers had been disciplined for violations such as not wearing seat belts based on the cameras.
“We’re not cavemen,” Roorda said. “We understand that the public has a right to answers, but they also have a right to know what the consequences of deploying this type of equipment are.”
He said paying officers better, providing more training and boosting morale would do more to improve the department than “Monday morning quarterback” interpretations of body camera video.
Joining the pack
The city police department, the largest in the state, now joins a host of other area police departments to experiment with the technology. The number has grown since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last year, and President Barack Obama has proposed $75 million in federal grant money to outfit officers with the cameras.
Cameras cost anywhere from $300 to $500 each, and that does not include storage costs for video.
St. Louis County has been running a pilot program since September 2014, equipping about half of its patrol force, or about 188 officers, with the technology. Chief Jon Belmar said his goal was to implement them department-wide “as soon as possible,” though finding the dollars to pay for cameras and video storage remains a challenge.
In the city, which has about 1,300 officers, Dotson said Taser has agreed to provide cameras for free during the trial period.
Dotson said he and Mayor Francis Slay have “secured funding for the initial purchase of equipment” after the pilot project. He would not disclose the estimated amount, saying the city wants to solicit bids from vendors after the pilot program.
A ‘necessary evil’
For the next three months, Dotson said, there will be at least one camera in each district and on each watch. Sergeants in the department’s mobile reserve and special operations units also will wear them.
Sergeants will be expected to turn on their cameras during traffic stops, citizen contacts and arrests, and to complete summary sheets about the cameras, Dotson said.
During Monday’s training, Taser representatives played videos taken from body cameras worn by officers during real-life emergencies. In one case, releasing the video after officers shot a man who was armed with a knife calmed tension with the community, according to the Taser representative.
Still, some sergeants seemed unconvinced. They whispered to each other and questioned Dotson about issues such as privacy and prosecution.
Sgt. Scott Valentine called the technology a “necessary evil” that officers should embrace because it is part of the “new norm” of law enforcement.
“A lot of officers view it negatively and think it’s an intrusion of their privacy, and at the same time, complaints go down because people know they are being videotaped and are less likely to file complaints and we’re less likely to have to act out negatively,” he said.
Dotson said he would release body camera video in accordance with the state’s Sunshine Law. He cited the recent unrest in Chicago, where protests have erupted after the release of an officer’s in-car camera footage one year after a white officer shot a black teen 16 times.
“Some agencies release all of it, and ultimately it might be done on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “That’s something agencies all over the country are struggling with now. We saw in Chicago how delays can cause problems, and others where delays have helped investigations.”
But Dotson cautioned that much more needs to be determined before the department could enact a permanent policy.
“None of this is a foregone conclusion,” he said.