Eugene police body cameras to bring transparency, added costs

By Jordan Ingram

The Eugene Police Department will receive $250,000 in city funds to match a federal grant to expand its body camera program as part of the City Council’s June 27 approved budget. But the EPD faces myriad fiscal challenges with a growing video monitoring system, according to department officials.

In combination with the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s award, the department will have nearly a half-million dollars to purchase cameras and software, increase data storage capacity and provide training.  

However, the nationwide demand to equip police officers with body cameras is stumbling on the reality of maintaining such a program, raising agency concerns over long-term costs.

The National Institute of Justice notes that law enforcement needs to consider “privacy issues, officer and community concerns, data retention and public disclosure policies and financial considerations,” according to its website.

EPD Public Information Officer Melinda McLaughlin said all video footage released to the public will require forensic technicians to ensure the privacy of a victim or any bystanders caught on camera at a rate of $32.60 per hour, in addition to a $25 processing fee.

The labor intensive, frame-by-frame editing process could take 8 to 10 hours to produce an hour of redacted video footage, according to McLaughlin.

Oregon state public record laws are pockmarked with over 500 exemptions that can delay or prevent the disclosure of state agency records. This includes any police audio and video recordings.

The law also requires that recordings be held anywhere between 180 days and 30 months.

These storage restrictions and redaction processes stretch the public records workload beyond the police station.

“There is an impact on the prosecutor’s office because now they’re going to have to review video from each officer and incident, so that’s a concern,” Meisel said.

Meisel added that officers with body cameras “are recording a nationwide average of 2 to 3 hours of video during a 10-hour shift. And that’s a lot of video.”

“Those are some of the issues that not only Eugene but agencies around the country are dealing with,” Eugene police Capt. Sherri Meisel said.  “We are trying to figure out the best way to store long-term in the most cost-efficient way.”

The BJA estimates the average program costs around $1,500 per camera, which includes everything from the hardware, licensing, and training.

It’s worth the expense from my perspective as being both an oversight professional and a member of the community,” said city of Eugene Police Auditor Mark Gissiner.

Gissiner also said that the EPD’s program expansion is a sign of a larger cultural paradigm shift that insists upon more transparency and accountability of law enforcement.   

“It’s 2016 now and people want accountability for public bodies,” Gissiner said.

The EPD had equipped a handful of downtown officers and traffic enforcement patrols with body-worn cameras as early as 2012. The following year, the department bought 18 more cameras.

This year, it plans to purchase nearly ten times that amount.

There are approximately 190 sworn officers on the police force that work in 10-hour shifts.

As police officials iron out concerns, the immediate consequences for journalists, lawyers, and watchdog groups could amount to longer waiting periods and higher price-tags for public records.

For those in Eugene still wobbling on the fence between financial prudence and heightened awareness of public officials, Gissiner says, “The question I ask all the time is, ‘What does it take to convince people that an investigation was fair and impartial?’ Transparency. That’s what it takes.”

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