St. Louis County Police Are Getting Body Cameras. Why Aren't City Cops?

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A St. Louis Metropolitan Police officer films protesters with a handheld camera. - DOYLE MURPHY
A St. Louis Metropolitan Police officer films protesters with a handheld camera.

By April, some 700 St. Louis County Police officers will be wearing body cameras which are designed to automatically turn on in various situations, for instance, when a sensor detects an officer running or pulling their gun.

The program will make the department the largest police force in Missouri to wear the recording devices, and yet, just over the city line, St. Louis City's department fields around 1,300 officers. But there is no parallel body camera program in the city, and there doesn't appear to be one on the horizon, either.

That's not for lack of stated support for body cameras by city and police officials. In a Thursday press release, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed reacted to the news of the county's program, saying he was "disappointed" that other regional police departments were taking steps to improve public safety, while St. Louis City "is at a standstill."

Reed's press release noted, "The entire body camera discussion began in our own backyard after the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson almost 5 years ago," and he added that the city's last meaningful action on body cameras came after a September 2017 meeting of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. At the time, the board approved the creation of a selection committee to evaluate bids for a body camera supplier for city officers.

In an interview Wednesday, Reed lamented the fact that a proposed one-year-trial program with the company Axon — a trial Reed says would have been "free, no obligations" — came to nothing after that 2017 hearing. And even though a committee was formed to start a competitive selection process, that process stalled even after receiving multiple bids.

"The committee that was created, they received responses from vendors all over the country, and nothing ever happened. It's frustrating," Reed said.

Indeed, in an email, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Woodling confirmed that the department "does not currently utilize body cameras."

Eventually, four vendors did submit bids to the selection committee after it was formed in 2017, but Woodling said the committee stopped there, writing, "A funding source has not been identified for this program at this time."

In St. Louis County, the funding for the body camera program came from Proposition P, which provides the revenue for the $5 million expenditure approved by the County Council in July. Under the arrangement, all 350 of the county's marked patrol cars will be outfitted with cameras. Of the county's approximately 950 officers, 700 will soon be wearing smartphone-like cameras that upload data to a cloud storage system.

As for the SLMPD, only about 70 police vehicles are currently equipped with in-car cameras, Woodling said in a followup email.

In interviews on Wednesday, both St. Louis City Mayor Lyda Krewson and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said they supported a body camera program and believed it could improve public safety — but both made the case that the city just doesn't have several million dollars to throw around. After St. Louis City voters approved their own version of Proposition P in 2017, Krewson says those funds went to needed salary increases for police officers and fire fighters.

"Every bit of our Prop P money has gone into people," Krewson said. "This is about balancing the funds that we have. At this point, there's not any plan to go back to voters for another tax increase."

Edwards, who was appointed Public Safety director in late 2017, said he researched body camera programs soon after joining city government. He said that he found that supposedly "free" field trials came with various catches. And if St. Louis City wanted to fully deploy a body camera system to its 1,200+ officers, the cost could be as much as $20 million for a five-year program.

"Long term, it was problematic. It was also problematic short term," Edwards said, and he argued that it's not just cameras that add to the bill, but the costs for things like processing Sunshine Requests or sending record custodians to testify in court about how videos are stored.

"I envy St. Louis County," Edwards added. "I hope the public realizes that we agree that officer safety is improved with body cameras, as well as public safety and police accountability. We agree with all of that."

It's worth noting that while St. Louis County Police are setting a precedent with a full-department rollout of body cameras, officers in both the county and city have worn body cameras in the past. In 2015, the SLMPD approved a 90-day pilot program for body cameras, but the program only involved 90 of the department's 200 sergeants.

At the time, then-Police Chief Sam Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he and then-Mayor Francis Slay planned to advance the program beyond the trial stage, and even claimed the city had "secured funding for the initial purchase of equipment." The Post story noted, however, "[Dotson] would not disclose the estimated amount, saying the city wants to solicit bids from vendors after the pilot program."

Obviously, whatever funding Dotson thought he had secured, it didn't work out. Four years later, as St. Louis County boasts of fielding one of the largest body camera-equipped police forces in the country, St. Louis City's police force is, as Reed suggested, at a standstill.

Still, Reed insists that the monetary hurdles can be overcome, and he contends that SLMPD's high number of officers will give it leverage in negotiating with potential vendors.

But Reed also suggests that this is really about politics, not money. He points out that after the resignation of disgraced St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, it only took the County Council a couple months to restart its own stalled body camera program.

"You have to have the political will to do it," Reed said. "It's people saying, 'This is something that we need, just get it done.'"

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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