Arlington has become one of the first jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to put cameras on patrol officers.
“We need to really understand how big this is. There’s the dimension people see, but there is also storage issues and [questions about] the ability to review the footage. I wonder if the jurisdictions more aggressively [implementing body cameras] fully understand what’s involved.”
— Deputy County Manager James Schwartz
On Aug. 29, 25 Arlington police officers began wearing body cameras as a test program to measure the effectiveness of different models. Through Sept. 25, police will be using one model of camera, then will use a different variety from Oct. 5 through Nov. 1. The final round of camera testing will run from Nov. 16 to Dec. 13.
According to the Arlington police website, the body-worn cameras assist in collection of evidence, enhance the department’s transparency, provide better evidence of public/police interactions, and can help de-escalate situations.
According to Ashley Savage, public information officer for the Arlington County Police Department, each camera costs $500. That total doesn’t include costs for storage.
“We’re trying to determine storage costs,” said Savage. “It will be cloud based. How much we collect in video is what we’re trying to assess. Once we do the testing and evaluation, then there will be an assessment portion, then adding it into our budget. This phase is about collecting and evaluating.”
Though the policy was developed over the last four months, Savage said the department has been working towards implementing body cameras for years.
“There’s a lot going on in the world related to body cameras,” Savage said. “We haven’t been pushed by the board to try them. We wanted to do this. We try to maintain ourselves as a modern organization.”
But police body cameras in Arlington are far from a certainty. Deputy County Manager James Schwartz said there has not been a funding request for a larger program because the final costs have not been determined.
“We’re not sure yet if this is a priority,” said Schwartz. “There’s a lot behind the use of the cameras. We need to really understand how big this is. There’s the dimension people see, but there is also storage issues and [questions about] the ability to review the footage. I wonder if the jurisdictions more aggressively [implementing body cameras] fully understand what’s involved.”
Police in D.C. have been using body cameras for a year, but jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have been slower to catch up. In June, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of an 18-month research period to review concerns about privacy. In Alexandria, the pilot program was pushed back until the fiscal year 2018-19 budget.
Crystal Nosal, public information officer for the Alexandria Police, said the department is ready for body cameras and would have an approach similar to Arlington’s.
“From our standpoint, it goes back to the city,” said Nosal. “It was shelved budgetary wise. At some point we do want body cameras. We will start a trial period and have a certain amount of cameras on the street.”
But with a limited budget, Nosal said the bigger priority is having more officers on the street.
“The general answer is: it’s a priority but it’s based on cost,” said Nosal. “There’s a lot of other things that have to be run in the city. The chief has said at community meetings that more officers are going to make the community safer; body cameras won’t make the community safer. Sometimes, when it comes down to budgetary issues, that’s where it lies.”
According to City Manager Mark Jinks, FY 2018-19 would just be the starting date for initiating some level of the project. According to Jinks, like Arlington and Fairfax, body cameras would start as a pilot program in Alexandria before being fully deployed.
“The reason we have not funded something earlier than that is that our priorities have been looking at staffing, mostly adding more patrol officers,” said Jinks. “The police have said body cameras could cost $1 million a year in, with data storage being high element. You’ve got 300 officers out there recording. You’ve got all that storage the full time they’re on duty. There are policies that need to be written.”
Jinks said a citizen survey conducted in 2015, where 90 percent of those surveyed said their interactions with the police were positive, helped convince Jinks that more patrol officers were more important than body cameras in the immediate future.
“We thought it would make sense [to hold off implementation because] we don’t have an immediate, urgent need,” said Jinks. “The relationship between the community and the police officers is good. The Human Rights Commission reviews our use of force. We’re probably the first metropolitan area to do that. We felt that body worn cameras didn’t come up to the top of the list in funding. We also expect tech to improve and price to drop.”
Like Arlington and Fairfax, Jinks also said Alexandria needs to sort out issues surrounding privacy and body-cameras. Jinks also says he’s wary to implement a policy for Alexandria when it may be superseded by state laws on body cameras. Jinks compared body cameras to drones, where various legislative bodies had to scramble to update laws for rapidly transforming technology.
“There are question in regards to what you need to keep, what is public information, can you redact out, and what is private,” said JInks. “There are all sorts of questions that have to be resolved. Giving funding restraints and those open questions, we thought it would be best to hold off. Eventually, body worn cameras will be standard, there’s no question about that, but it’s a question about cost right now.”