Gehrke: Why would any Utah police department consider getting rid of body cameras?

Robert Gehrke

A Murray police officer was convicted of assault in January after he punched a 16-year-old boy in the face and mashed his head into the ground. The violence was recorded by his body camera.

The incoherent teen, high on spice, later said he wasn’t aware the officer was trying to wake him as he lay on the side of a road. The teen had taken a feeble kick at the officer, but the video made clear the officer wasn’t in danger and that the punch was uncalled for.

Similar footage has been used as evidence in scores of encounters since departments started deploying body cameras.

Sometimes the video shows officers crossing the line, like when police roughed up nurse Alex Wubbels after she refused to take an unconstitutional blood draw from an unconscious victim of a car crash.

Other times, it is used to defend officers, as was the case last September, when Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to file charges against West Valley City officers who shot and killed a man armed with a screwdriver. Gill said, especially when officers refuse to cooperate — as they did in the West Valley case — body camera footage can be the best available evidence.

Cameras have become so ubiquitous and proven to be so beneficial to police departments across the United States that it was really nothing short of inconceivable that Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said the Unified Police Department may stop using body cameras.

UPD Lt. Melody Gray said Tuesday that the department’s board is taking a few months to assess the future of the cameras, “looking at: Do we keep it as is, do we do away with it or do we expand it?”

Federal grants used to get the program off the ground are expiring and the cost of storing the footage are mounting, Gray said.

There are, indeed, costs that accumulate, both up-front in purchasing the cameras, and long-term, in storing the video they collect.

The Utah Department of Public Safety, for example, is asking the Legislature for $216,000 this year to pay for the storage of 163,200 gigabytes of video gathered by the 425 troopers outfitted with cameras.

But it is a cost worth paying.

“For us, we see great value in keeping body cameras and being able to stay with it,” DPS Commissioner Jess Anderson told me.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said when the city initially deployed body cameras, officers were a little reluctant. “There are two things cops hate: The way things are and change.”

“But I’ll tell you what, after a while, the benefits outweigh the downside and there are a lot of officers who wouldn’t go out to work without having their camera,” Brown said. “It’s probably one of the most important tools they have.”

That’s not only true for the police. Gill, the district attorney, said that, from a prosecutor’s standpoint, the footage from a body camera can be a critical piece of evidence.

More than that, there is a growing expectation among citizens — particularly those in underrepresented communities — that the cameras will help ensure fairness when they interact with police.

“I think the genie is out of the bottle,” Gill said.

“It’s an issue which is not simply reducible any longer to a money issue. It’s about institutional integrity, it’s about transparency, it’s about accountability,” he said. Getting rid of cameras now, he said, would make as much as sense as taking laptops out of police cars.

Moreover, the expense of the cameras only captures part of the equation. Studies have shown that cameras change the dynamic when an officer encounters a person. Both parties are on good behavior when they know they’re being recorded, and the risk of escalation and violence is reduced.

A 2017 study of the Las Vegas Police Department, for example, found a 14 percent reduction in citizen complaints and a 12.5 percent reduction in use-of-force reports. With fewer incidents to investigate and investigations taking less time because of video documentation, the researchers estimated the cameras produced a net savings of nearly $2,000 per year for each officer equipped with a device.

There’s nothing wrong with Unified Police taking a careful look at how cameras are used, how the video is retained and, a key point, how they’ll be paid for. But let’s forget this notion that one of the state’s largest police departments should withdraw back to the 20th Century and focus on what lies ahead.

As Chief Brown said: “It’s what policing is going to look like in the future, so to go back the other way, I just don’t know if that’s a good move.”