ST. LOUIS — Mayor Lyda Krewson, under pressure from top city politicians, said on Wednesday that she would form a committee to seek vendors to equip police with body cameras, after the idea fizzled two years ago.
Her statements mark something of a public reversal. Her staff said two weeks ago that body cameras were too expensive. And, two years ago, her administration backed out of a trial, saying recently that the department then more urgently needed other items — patrol car dash cameras, GPS, computers and radios, for instance.
But the issue resurfaced Wednesday at a meeting of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the city’s top fiscal body. Aldermanic President Lewis Reed called on Krewson and city Comptroller Darlene Green to spend surplus dollars, and quickly, on the cameras.
“This is a major discussion that began here in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting,” Reed told Green and Krewson. “And we’re still sitting here, and to have it be this difficult to even get it on the agenda so we can take a real look at this is just beyond me.”
Reed suggested using $5 million of a $23 million budget surplus this year, half of which can be used for capital expenses.
He estimated that the cost to the city would be a little more than $1 million per year, covering cameras for the department’s 1,100 officers, plus the necessary data storage and maintenance. Reed said he got his cost estimates from St. Louis County’s police body camera vendor, Utility Associates, Inc.
St. Louis County police officials announced earlier this month that 700 officers will be outfitted with body cameras by April. The $5 million purchase is being paid for by Proposition P, a tax hike approved by voters in 2017. The chest-mounted cameras secured inside the officers’ uniforms automatically activate when gunshots are detected, when officers start running or when they draw their guns.
Reed has recently expressed frustration that the city’s effort to implement body cameras has been delayed.
“I understand that a couple of years ago this was a hotly contested issue,” Reed said during the meeting, but “we now have the funds to do it.”
In September 2017 it seemed as though the city would finally get body cameras. As residents shouted demands for action, the Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to start a free trial with a body-camera vendor, Axon. The board of aldermen also voted to seek bids from body-camera vendors for a long-term contract.
But the free trial and the contract never happened. City Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said earlier this month that the trial turned out not to be free. The devices were free, he said. Uploading data to the cloud was free. But accessing that data would have cost the city money, he said — about $4 million per year.
Reed maintained that the trial was free.
And just two weeks ago, Edwards expressed doubt that the city could afford to get body cameras even now, estimating that they would cost $20 million over five years.
But on Wednesday, Krewson said body cameras were worth exploring.
“We do really have to think through this though because body cameras are a pretty expensive proposition and not a one-time cost,” Krewson said before the meeting.
Reed’s proposal, a resolution to spend up to $5 million of the city budget surplus on body cameras, didn’t actually make it onto Wednesday’s meeting agenda. Green said Reed’s staff hadn’t followed proper procedure. Reed said his staff had, and accused Green of blocking the proposal.
Still, Green said she supported body cameras.
“I stand in support of any substantive change that would help reduce crime, and that does include body cameras,” Green said.
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