Funding to reimburse municipal police departments for the purchase of body cameras languished for years unspent until in March the legislature moved $3 million of $3.6 million remaining to fund camera purchases by the State Police.
Now a provision in the Police Accountability Bill passed in special session this summer has towns scrambling to secure any of the remaining money.
The bill requires municipal police departments to outfit officers with body cameras no later than July 2022.
The new police accountability law has renewed interest in the grant program, with municipal departments hoping to claim a share of the approximately $500,000 remaining before the program runs out and is replaced by another state-administered grant reimbursing towns for 30 percent — rather than the current 50 percent — of costs.
Competition for the remaining grant funding has made reaching vendors difficult, East Lyme Police Chief Mike Finkelstein told the East Lyme Police Commission last week. It took about two months to get quotes from two vendors, and it wasn’t their fault, they just have so many inquiries, he said.
“If you can imagine every town in Connecticut that doesn’t have body cameras is asking these companies to do presentations and get quotes, so it’s been very difficult,” Finkelstein said.
A fiscal analysis of the police accountability bill state lawmakers passed in July estimated that it would cost a total of $4 million for the 53 municipal police departments still without body cameras to purchase them, and another $4 million a year to store the data – putting the total first-year cost at $8 million. Those departments account for 53 percent of all municipal police officers in the state, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.
The original body camera reimbursement grant program was established with the passage of a bill aimed at police accountability in 2015. Many municipalities passed on the grant because it reimbursed purchases rather than funding them up front, and because it left municipalities to pay the ongoing costs of storing the video and maintaining the system.
The legislature expanded the program to reimburse first-time purchases of dashboard cameras, then to reimburse purchases of replacement dashboard cameras. After three years, there was still $3.6 million of the original $10 million in grants available.
In March, before passing the accountability bill, the legislature approved a bond adjustment that shifted $3 million of the remaining $3.6 million in grant funds to the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection to fund body camera purchases for the state police, citing limited interest in the program from municipalities.
The bill authorized $4 million for the new grant, which still needs to be allocated by the State Bond Commission, and would reimburse towns for 30 percent of their body camera purchases, and 50 percent for towns qualifying as “distressed” under state law. The Office of Policy and Management is developing that program now, spokesman Chris McClure said.
Finkelstein told the commission that timing is important. Purchasing the cameras now and purchasing them several months from now could result in East Lyme receiving several thousand dollars less funding.
“I know from my conversations with the boards of selectmen and finance that everyone is completely on board with, ‘Yes, we need to have these, we should have these, we’re going to have them,’” Finkelstein said. “It’s just, how much is that money that we have to outlay going to be?”
WatchGuard’s estimate was about $150,000 for 25 body cameras and 14 in-car cameras. Axon’s system costs $300,000, including the cameras and a software that stores videos on a cloud server, and there is an option for videos to be sent directly to the State’s Attorney’s Office, rather than the department passing them along through thumb drives or disks, Finkelstein said.
Finkelstein said Axon would be the first choice if money wasn’t an object, and the proposal received the blessing of the commission to drill down into the details with the company and come back quickly with a proposal.
Other towns have taken notice, too.
The Rocky Hill Town Council moved quickly to approve the purchase body and dashboard cameras for the 20 units in its police department’s patrol unit from Texas-based WatchGuard at a cost of $175,100, and to apply for the state reimbursement grant, voting unanimously at its Sept. 21 meeting.
Town Councilor Allan Greenspan said at the meeting that the purchase was added late to the meeting agenda because the grants are administered on a first-come-first-serve basis, and the town needed to make the purchase before it could apply for the grant.
“The sooner we get our money in, the more likely we are to receive a reimbursement,” Greenspan said.
Greenspan said the proposal was following Wallingford, which included $165,000 to purchase body-worn cameras for the 98-member department in its annual budget, which it passed in June, before the state police accountability bill.
Wallingford Police Chief William Wright said he requested body cameras this year because the department is near having to update its cruiser camera equipment, which the department has had since the early 1990s, and he wanted to purchase the body cameras around the time they replace the in-car cameras.
While the town council already approved the purchase, Wright said his department can’t apply for the grant until the cameras arrive and they receive an invoice. Wallingford put out a bid for the body cameras, and only received one bid – WatchGuard, which the town also uses for the in-car system.
“It’s great for the simplicity of being under one manufacturer,” Wright said, though it likely won’t cost any less to store the data.
The Police Accountability Bill also expanded the requirements for which vehicles need to have dashboard cameras. Wallingford Police has 17 vehicles with cameras now, and needs an additional 10 to meet the requirements of the new law, Wright said. The existing cameras have been replaced on a regular cycle to avoid large peaks in the capital expense line of the budget, but some of those need to be replaced, he said.
“There are some that are of an old enough generation that by replacing them, I can marry the cruiser recordings with the body camera recording so that they’re all in one place,” Wright said.
Wright said the department will be in compliance with both the in-car and body-worn camera provisions by the time they take effect in 2022, and he plans to apply for the next grant to reimburse up to 30 percent of the cost of the in-car cameras.
Stonington Police Chief J. Darren Stewart said the department isn’t rushing to make a purchase, though body cameras have been a topic of discussion at police commission meetings in recent months, and the department is currently trying out cameras from three vendors. Stewart said there’s a committee looking into what the town’s best options are.
“It’s not as simple as putting a camera on somebody – you have to have the IT support, we also have to have the records support personnel to be able to look at the videos,” said Stewart. “There’s a variety of different things that go on, so it’s more than just deploying, it’s a bit of a process.”
Stewart said that Stonington had begun the process of acquiring body cameras prior to the police accountability law, but that there had been “competing interests” with the purchase of a new emergency communication system. He said that the town hadn’t wanted to burden taxpayers with the purchase cameras at the same time.
“We’re going to be having body and dash cams in our capital improvement budget going forward, and the state law says 30 percent reimbursement, so we look forward to that to help out the town when it comes to that,” Stewart said.