DOVER, Del. (AP) - Leaders of the legislature’s budget-writing committee are expressing concerns about the potential costs that could come with widespread use of body cameras by Delaware law enforcement agencies.
Attorney General Matt Denn is asking for more than $400,000 in new funding in the upcoming fiscal year to hire three attorneys and two analysts who would be tasked with reviewing body camera footage.
That’s on top of the $350,000 that Gov. Jack Markell is seeking to purchase body cameras and pay for associated costs.
The co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee quizzed Denn on Tuesday about his body camera funding request, and his claim that Department of Justice staff could be tasked with spending 15,000 hours a year reviewing body camera footage, which may ultimately never be used in court.
The use of body cameras has become a hot topic following high-profile incidents around the country in which people have died in encounters with police officers.
Last year, Gov. Jack Markell announced plans for a pilot body camera program involving state and local police agencies in Delaware, where some police agencies already use body cameras. The technology is seen as offering greater transparency and accountability involving police interactions with citizens, but it also carries concerns about privacy - and funding.
“It’s a positive step forward for the criminal justice system, but it’s one that comes with a cost,” Denn told finance committee members.
Pointing to a single case involving Middletown police, Denn noted that his department devoted 22 hours of staff time to reviewing more than seven hours of body camera footage involving a reported sexual assault with multiple witnesses.
Committee co-chair Melanie Smith, D-Bear, questioned whether the time and effort of capturing, analyzing and storing body camera footage is worth the potential benefits to the public.
“Is it worth the taxpayers’ dollar to have seven hours of footage in this one case?” she asked, wondering if an officer’s time might be better spent interviewing witnesses and writing reports the old-fashioned way.
Co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell III, D-Wilmington, suggested that 90 percent of what is captured on body cameras will be irrelevant. He also wondered whether low-level staffers could be trained to review footage, rather than leaving the task to highly trained attorneys.
Denn noted, however, that decisions on what information to provide to defense attorneys and what should be redacted to protect the rights of crime victims need to be made by lawyers.
The true cost of body cameras will depend on how often they are used, how much footage is captured, what information is stored, and for how long.
“If there is technology available, the courts have pretty much said, ‘use it,’” state prosecutor Kathleen Jennings told committee members. “…. Certainly, we have to be justified in turning that camera off.”
Denn’s office has been working with the Delaware Police Chiefs Council on a uniform policy for police agencies in Delaware that could provide clarity on when and how they should be used. He indicated that, from his perspective, more footage is better than less.
“The cost, to be blunt, is not one of the things our office or the chiefs were looking at,” Denn told lawmakers.
Denn also acknowledged after the hearing that the uniform policy on body cameras, which is expected to be finalized in the next month, would be strictly voluntary and would not be binding on any police agency.
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