One of Utah’s biggest police forces is thinking about dropping body cameras because they cost too much

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera was the keynote speaker at the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial, Thursday, May 3, 2018. No Utah law enforcement officer died in the line of duty last year.

The Unified Police Department may discontinue use of body cameras, with administrators pointing to high costs for digital video storage and relatively few officer encounters where footage has been used by investigators.

“I’m torn,” said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera on Thursday, after the department’s governing board tabled the issue for future budget discussions. “If the public’s willing to pay to help keep those, I’m supportive of that. But ... we’re fighting for every cent in law enforcement. So it’s tough.”

UPD outfitted 125 of its 410 officers with body cameras in 2017, with the help of a grant that expires later this year, Rivera said. The UPD board of directors requested data on camera use to help decide whether to provide cameras to the whole department, continue with just 30 percent of officers outfitted or eliminate them altogether.

Police accountability advocates said the choice should be easy.

“It’s kind of unconscionable to be thinking in this day and age, in 2019, that we should not have body cameras,” said David Newlin, an organizer with Utahns Against Police Brutality. “Costs are costs. At this point, it’s like asking officers to go out on to the street without shoes on.

“Just in Utah we’ve seen footage from body cams that had a direct result in the direction of justice: Nurse Wubbels, for example,” Newlin said, referring to the 2017 arrest of nurse Alex Wubbels. Wubbels received a $500,000 settlement after body camera footage showed a Salt Lake City police sergeant wrestling her out of a University of Utah emergency room because she wouldn’t allow police to draw blood from an unconscious victim of a traffic crash.

Outfitting all UPD officers would cost more than $400,000 per year, according to the report provided to the board Thursday. Since the existing cameras were put to use, the department’s internal affairs has documented more than 1,600 uses of force, 23 of which resulted in complaints. Of those, seven involved body camera footage — and all the officers in those cases were cleared.

The belief that body cameras generally protect officers from false misconduct claims has made them popular among other departments in Utah; most of the large agencies began distributing cameras to officers well before UPD acquired its initial supply for just 30 percent of its force.

“There’s no chatter here of doing away with body cameras,” said Salt Lake City police Detective Robert Ungricht. “Our former chief and current chief support the body cameras. It’s never been one of those things: ‘Ugh, we have to do it because the public wants it.’”

Video may be an officer’s first line of defense when a civilian makes an allegation against them — and often shuts down complaints before they’re filed, Ungricht said.

“Their supervisor will say, ‘Well, I’m looking at the video,’ and then the person’s like, ‘Oh, never mind, I don’t want to file a complaint,’” Ungricht said.

Before cameras arrived at UPD, they were so desired that a department spokesman in 2014 told The Tribune that some officers were buying them on their own.

But a recent survey of more than 300 UPD officers showed most did not believe the entire department should be outfitted with cameras — though about a quarter said all officers should be given cameras, and that they are a necessity in policing.

“What they’re saying is that ... there’s been very little problem with body cams showing police officers are out of line,” said board member Jim Bradley, also a Salt Lake County councilman.

“If not for public perception, we probably would have said it maybe isn’t quite worth it,” Bradley added.

Lex Scott, a leader in Black Lives Matter Utah who has pushed for police transparency, said she raced to the police department’s board meeting Thursday after hearing the item was on the agenda.

“It scared the crap out of me,” she said. “We have to have body cams. I don’t care how much it costs. … They need to not get rid of them. They need to get rid of something else.”

Rivera said she anticipates a lot of feedback from the public as the board studies the issue.

“And that’s good. We need to hear from folks,” she said. “I understand the public perception out there. I know the public wants us to have the cameras, but we also have to consider the cost to it. ... If we’re cutting costs in our training or equipment or even benefits for officers, that impacts keeping the public safe."

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has remained neutral on body cameras, though the national organization has recommended best practices for agencies that use them.

“The broader FOP position is, it’s a community and department-based decision,” said Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah FOP. “Some departments are stepping back from them, generally for cost reasons.”

Thursday’s report cited 2016 research from the U.S. Department of Justice that showed costs and the logistics of providing public access to video were by far the most common reasons police agencies gave for not using body cameras.

“I guess doing the right thing costs money sometimes,” Newlin said.

For the existing cameras and data storage, UPD has paid $348,000 and received grant funding of $146,000, Rivera said. The board has asked for estimates for continuing to use the 125 existing cameras and will review that option at its next meeting, on March 21.

— Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this article.