The Phoenix Police Department received more than $600,000 in federal grant money this week to double the number body cameras on officers — there are currently about 150 cops wearing cameras in the Maryvale precinct, and with the new money, 150 more cameras will be distributed throughout the city, bringing the total to about 300.
The PPD applied for the grant earlier this year, as did 285 other state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, and it was one of 73 to receive funding. Three other places in Arizona received grants: the cities of Glendale and Peoria and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa County Indian Community, netting the state a cumulative $1.3 million in funds to initiate or expand body-camera programs.
The money is part of a $19 million federal Department of Justice initiative to use body cameras as a means of “improving public safety, reducing crime, and improving public trust between police and the citizens they serve. It was announced by the Obama administration earlier this year at a time when much of the country was actively discussing alleged police brutality and civilian-officer relations, and wondering if body cameras would be a panacea.
Locally, the issue of excessive force was front and center when not too long after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, Rumain Brisbane and Michelle Cusseaux each were fatally shot by Phoenix officers.
Sergeant Trent Crump says the PPD will put city grant money into continuing a research pilot program it launched with Arizona State University in 2011: the study then adhered 56 body cameras to officers in the Maryvale precinct — a part of the city with a large immigrant population and high levels of violent crime and police activity. And in the years since, the department has added nearly 100 more to the study.
The PPD teamed up with ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety to “evaluate the effectiveness of officers wearing cameras,” Crump explains. The results have been “fruitful,” he adds, mentioning a report published earlier this year by ASU called Evaluating the Impact of Officer Worn Body Cameras in the Phoenix Police Department.
In the report, lead author and professor Charles Katz writes that the “findings suggest that officer worn body cameras may increase officer productivity, reduce the number of complaints against officers, decrease the number of founded complaints against them, and increase the effectiveness in which criminal cases are processed in the courts."
Statistics show that the number of overall complaints about officers went down 22.5 percent during the pilot period, and that officers with the cameras experience a 47.7 percent decline in excessive-use-of-force complaints, and a 35 percent decrease in verbal-misconduct complaints.
“While our findings also suggested that there are a number of problems associated with the implementation of body cameras, such as increased amount of time spent on paperwork, increased IT needs, officer concerns about video files being used against them, and increased amount of time it takes to process criminal cases," Katz writes, "our results combined with prior research suggest that the benefits of officer worn body cameras outweigh their weaknesses and limitations.”
It’s findings like this, coupled with the relatively few body cameras in the city, that frustrate some community members such as Geoff Woods. If the data shows benefits, he and others argue, why not outfit more cops with body cameras immediately — particularly since the department will now receive $16 million extra dollars annually from the general fund that no longer must be spent on public transportation.
"Body cams would cost $3.5 million the first year for the purchase of equipment; costs the following years would be minimal for upkeep and storage," Woods tells New Times, arguing that the city would only need to use a fraction of that $16 million on cameras.
The PPD and the City Council, however, plan to use the $16 million to hire and maintain more officers.
Following budget cuts and a hiring freeze in 2008, the department has since dwindled to its smallest size in 15 years. There now are fewer than 2,700 cops patrolling a 500-plus-square-mile city with 1.5 million people. (By comparison, Dallas, slightly smaller both in terms of population and geography, has more than 3,400 sworn officers.)
“We desperately need to invest in the officers we have now before we bring in more,” Phoenix resident Dai Lili said at a recent city council meeting. Another resident, Joanne Scott Woods, told the council that body cameras are cost-effective because fewer lawsuits come with with fewer citizen complaints,
She notes that the city is “currently facing a $65 Million suit by the family of Rumain Brisbon,” hinting that this new equipment would pay for itself quickly.
“The benefits of body cams are both financial and judicial,” she says.
But Crump says, “It’s just not nearly as simple as some people make it out to be.”
The department can’t just strap cameras to every officer and send them out on patrol, he says: “There are effectiveness issues, privacy issues [and] training issues…and you need to ensure that state laws are in place that cover how to store the material' [the cameras record].”
Indeed, many issues that come up revolve around securing and accessing video from the cameras — who can view it and under what circumstances? How long does a department need to store the s video? How does the department ensure it’s secure?
“You study those things so that you know you’re doing things effectively,” Crump says.
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“And think about the fact that these cameras are forward-facing, looking out at the community. There are a lot of privacy issues that come up, and [navigating these issues] is part of our responsibility.”
Katz writes in the ASU study that the positive findings are not meant to suggest “that police agencies in general and the Phoenix Police Department in particular should implement the technology throughout the department[s] immediately but that they should move forward purposely with the anticipation that police worn body cameras will be increasingly used.”
The cameras may be really successful elsewhere, Crump says, but every city is different, and the PPD wants to wait for the data before jumping to conclusions or making big policy changes.
Meanwhile, community activists who want accountability now, say the data is present, and explain that after seeing nine civilians die at the hands of Phoenix officers so far this year, they aren't going to give up the fight for cameras and accountability anytime soon.