As a group of protesters gathered in Middletown earlier this month, police Major Leanne Hood held up a phone in front of the group.
“Help us out,” she said. “When you see the police, since we don’t have body cams, help us out. Get your cameras out when you see police interacting with somebody.”
Like Middletown, many police agencies in Butler County do not equip officers with body cameras, technology that can provide a record of police interactions. The issue has been spotlighted again after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, which sparked national protests.
The three largest departments, Hamilton, Middletown and the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, do not have body cams. Officials say cost and privacy issues surrounding the data are issues with acquiring the equipment.
Middletown police Chief David Birk said cost includes personnel to manage the data storage and public records requests for the video.
“We don’t have a problem with people recording us,” Birk said.
Video from businesses and doorbell cameras are often sought out during a use-of-force investigation, he said.
Birk said his department has explored a body cam program many times. It has a price take of about $250,000 to $300,000 just for the upfront camera system purchase, so cost remains the biggest issues, he said.
“I am all for them, I encourage them, but it all comes down to what do we want to prioritize with the little money we have, with COVID and budget cuts coming … funding body cameras is just difficult to do,” he said. “No one understands the other aspects. And remember, this is just one perspective on the officer’s shirt. We also have to consider the massive storage issue and the personnel to address redactions that violate privacy mandates.”
Birk said the department does have cameras in cruisers and the system has recently been updated.
Hamilton Police Chief Craig Bucheit said he has made a recommendation, after hearing from his frontline officers, that the purchase of body cameras be part of the 2021 budget.
”We have an extensive camera program that we have invested in over the years. That existing program, the in-car program, has paid significant dividends over the years both to our community and our department and our department has long recognized the value in expanding that program,” Bucheit said.
“Up to this point the question has been, ‘Does that value outweigh the upfront costs and staffing necessary to start up, manage and maintain the body worn camera program?’ The answer to that question moving forward is yes and I have requested the necessary funding in out 2021 budget.”
The Butler County Sheriff’s Office does not have cruiser cams or body cameras. Sheriff Richard Jones has never been a proponent, and he hasn’t changed his mind.
“We are not interested in any technology we can’t afford,” Jones said.
He said the program is expensive.
“The cameras are not as expensive as the data that you store,” Jones said. “And the ACLU has issues with what you shouldn’t be able to release to the media. Some police like them, some don’t. I don’t have an issue with not having them.”
Jones said there may be some governmental changes in the future and “they will maybe come up with some money, which is taxpayer money, and they will go ahead and pay for these things and the data at some point, but right now I am not interested.”
BCSO Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said changes caused by the current societal climate could lead more officers to be equipped with body cameras.
“With everything going on, maybe there is going to be some mandatory issues that will be funded by grants from the public and maybe we will take advantage of those then,” he said
Last year, an Ohio law took effect that identifies 17 instances in which video recorded by body camera is exempt from disclosure. They include views inside a residence unless the incident involves “an adversarial encounter with, or a use of force by, a peace officer,” children, a death or dead body unless the death was caused by a police officer, a nude body unless the person consents and grievous” bodily harm to a peace officer, firefighter, paramedic or other first responder.
Dwyer said those privacy issues are still being tweaked and are part of the added expense of a body camera program.
Trenton has one of the smaller departments not equipped with body cameras, but Chief Arthur Scott says an upgrade in the computer system that could lead to a camera system is in the works.
“It has been on the agenda for well over a year,” Scott said, adding there is a member of the community that has expressed interest to fund the project. “We are aiming ourselves in that direction, but we had some technological challenges we have to fix first.”
Fairfield Twp. Police Chief Robert Chabali said the department has had cruiser cameras for about a year and a half and “we are always assessing and reviewing how or when to look at body cameras, the in-car cameras have worked tremendously well. They have been very positive for law enforcement.”
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