Body cameras and ‘dash cams’ would cost Georgia police $125 million

Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will have Georgia’s largest team covering the Legislature in January. No one will have more expertise on issues that matter to taxpayers when legislators return.

Georgia’s local law enforcement agencies could spend:

  • $125 million over three years for
  • 12,800 body cameras
  • 7,400 vehicle cameras.

Officers in Georgia already have an estimated:

  • 3,400 body cameras
  • 5,200 vehicle cameras.

Outfitting all police officers statewide with body cameras and vehicle “dash cams” could cost local authorities as much as $125 million over three years — a prohibitive hurdle despite efforts by some Georgia lawmakers to mandate them after events such as the shooting death of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

The new estimate from the state Department of Community Affairs came as both legislators and law enforcement officials prepare to tackle the issue when Georgia’s Legislature reconvenes Jan. 12.

While few oppose the cameras themselves, doubts linger whether their use should be mandatory or local agencies would be allowed to opt in as they develop policy and can afford it. There’s also the question of how to pay for the new cameras. A report obtained last week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution estimated that at least an additional 7,400 vehicle cameras and an additional 12,800 body cameras would be needed to supplement those already in use across Georgia.

“I don’t think you’ll see any pushback on using body cameras — our sheriffs certainly see the benefit, and I think they’re going to be widely accepted,” said J. Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “If they think this is good public policy, they should recommend it. But any mandate that comes down from the state that makes a cost for a local (agency), we have issues with that.”

A push to use body cameras and implement other police department changes took hold nationwide after the shooting death in Ferguson of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. A grand jury decided late last month not to indict the officer who shot Brown after conflicting accounts of what may have prompted the shooting.

Cameras potentially could help resolve such disputes. Brown’s family has called for police officers to wear body cameras, as have a number of community leaders. Among them in Georgia is state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who is preparing legislation here that would require both body cameras and vehicle cameras for all local police agencies.

Fort met last week with law enforcement officials to vet the bill, and he remained open to changing it to something more voluntary because of concerns about cost.

“Just what form it’s going to take is not decided yet,” Fort said. “I think the community thinks it’s a good idea. I think many law enforcement organizations think it’s a good idea because it also protects law enforcement.”

Additional questions about any legislation would likely include privacy concerns; who has access to the recordings; and training for officers to use the cameras properly.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who is also chairman of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said prosecutors would also like changes explicitly allowing police officers to wear body cameras onto private property. State law currently regards video recording as needing the consent of the owner or person being filmed on that property, something that may be unlikely in the event of police action.

Local agencies could be able to pay for some of the expected costs through federal grants. President Barack Obama last week proposed a three-year, $263 million spending package that includes paying for 50,000 small, lapel-mounted cameras to record police on the job.

State and local governments would be expected to pay half the cost under that program. While some officials may consider paying for the cameras through different grants or use of forfeiture funds from seized property, some remain doubtful of what state House Public Safety Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, called an “unfunded mandate” from the state.

Powell, who also sits on the House public safety budget subcommittee, said pay raises for law enforcement officers should be a bigger priority.

“The whole idea of body cameras when so many of your law enforcement officers are underpaid as they are — I would just as soon pay them more money,” he said.

Clint Mueller, the legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said his group would support the state setting up a grant system to give counties financial incentives to buy body cameras. Any mandate, however, would both violate the principle of local control and force local governments to pay for something they never voted on, he said.

“There is no doubt where we stand on that, we would oppose that,” Mueller said. “If it’s a policy, if it’s going to be paid for locally, it should be approved locally.”