By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Although a privacy law that regulates police body cameras took effect in January, some departments around the state remain skeptical of what they say is an expensive tool not worth the money.
About 40 to 50 law enforcement departments in the state have adopted body cameras, estimated Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, although no one keeps statistics.
Many law enforcement officials have expressed concerns about adopting cameras.
One problem is the tremendous cost, said Dave Hiller, the executive director of the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents many police officers.
He said police do welcome the body camera as another tool that is beneficial in doing their jobs,
but it’s not cheap, and storing video from the cameras is expensive.
“When you start to multiply that by the number of officers in your department, you can see the cost goes up,” Hiller said.
No guidelines for the use of body cameras have been issued on a statewide level, he said. “We encourage and suggest that any department equipped with body cameras develop a use policy, absolutely.”
The Macomb County Sheriff’s Department implemented body cameras last April.
Lt. Tina Old said cameras cost about $1,100 each and are used to support deputies’ written reports, help collect evidence, facilitate investigations and provide feedback for training.
“The sheriff’s office wanted to be transparent with the public,” Old said. Recordings could provide “objective evidentiary value in investigations” and serve to reinforce the public’s trust by preserving factual accounts of interactions.
The recordings can be used to maximize the safety of officers and improve service to the community, she said. She said the department hasn’t hired any additional staff to assist with the storage.
The Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have body cameras and hasn’t heard a demand from the citizenry to buy and use them, said Lt. Tom Goerge.
And the department doesn’t expect to obtain any soon because of the cost, he said.
“The initial cost is a huge hindrance, as well as replacement costs,” Goerge said. “I’m told that a body camera’s life is about two years.”
Goerge said he has a number of concerns about body cameras, including the privacy of citizens, the cost of storing video and, perhaps, less cooperation from witnesses and victims when they know they’re being recorded.
And it adds to the workload for officers who must remove some of the footage when it is legally required.
Also, some officers are unconvinced that a body camera shows the full picture of an event.
“It’s not necessarily going to tell you what you think it is going to tell you,” said George Basar, the chief of the Howell Police Department and a past president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
It’s a tool, Basar said, but police officers wear their body cameras on the middle of their chest, so the picture they record isn’t the whole picture of what they see.
Referring to a recent case in California when police officers muted their body cameras during a shooting, Blaine Koops, the executive director of Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said he sees that type of situation as the major problem.
And Basar said malfunctions are also a problem.
“Technology breaks for a variety of reasons. As soon as you have something happen where a body camera malfunctions, you’ll get accused, so the police officers are immediately put in a position to defend themselves,” he said, adding that there’s still a place for them.
Grand Valley State University police don’t have body cameras and there are no plans to adapt them, said Brandon DeHaan, the director of public safety at the university.
“I continue to ask members of our community, including faculty, staff and students, about body cameras,” DeHaan said. “The answer received from all groups continues to be that they do not see a need, nor do they wish for officers of the Grand Valley State University Police to wear body cameras.”
According to Montcalm County’s Goerge, it’s difficult to say whether the body camera helps build community trust. “Cameras may play a role.”
He said police departments with community outreach projects and interaction with the community on more than just ‘investigative contacts’ can build trust that way.
“My belief is that trust goes way beyond a small piece of electronic equipment. It is developed over time and is accomplished by law enforcement officials working hard to protect the community, sharing information with the community and keeping them informed,” he said.