Will the Lafayette PD take advantage of DOJ's new body cam incentives?

by Patrick Flanagan

When asked, law enforcement officials will say body cams worn by police officers is a great idea, the wave of the future.

Photo illustration by Robin May

When asked, law enforcement officials will say body cams worn by police officers is a great idea, the wave of the future.

The use of these cams is rapidly spreading across the country, especially in the last year following a series of high-profile officer-involved shootings of unarmed black males, sparking off riots in cities like Ferguson, Berkeley and most recently Baltimore.

And despite the notion that there will be a point in the future where body cams will be worn by each and every law enforcement officer in America, there still remains a large number of agencies that have yet to jump on board with the new technology.

“I don’t think cost or any other reason should prevent our police department from obtaining the greatest amount of evidence possible." — Kenneth Boudreaux, chairman of the Lafayette City-Parish Council
Photo by Robin May

So far, that’s been the case here in the Hub City, with officials like Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft repeatedly citing various issues like the lack of a uniform policy governing cam usage, and most recently, a lack of funding.

The funding issue has also been the reason cited by the Baton Rouge Police Department in its failure to roll out an officer camera program.

In Baton Rouge, however, Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle has responded to the department’s reluctance by pushing for an ordinance that would make body cams a funding priority for the department there. Here in Lafayette, that has yet to play out, although City-Parish Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux has told The Independent in previous interviews that funding should be of no concern to Chief Craft or the department. Boudreaux says funding is the council’s domain, while the chief’s concern should remain on making the department as technologically sound as possible.

“I don’t think cost or any other reason should prevent our police department from obtaining the greatest amount of evidence possible," Boudreaux noted during our talk in December. "This is a live video that gives an accurate record of what took place.”

Yet, as the months continue to pass, Lafayette PD — which logged 10 officer-shootings between 2006 and 2012, but little to no protests and not a single riot — remains in the “testing” phases, with only a handful of its officers wearing the cameras. The reason cited most recently by Chief Craft: funding.

But according to an announcement from the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this week, that excuse may no longer hold water as the federal agency, through its Office of Justice Program’s Comprehensive Body-Worn Camera Program, is making funds available to departments throughout the country.

From the DOJ’s release:

As part of President Obama’s commitment to expand funding and training t0o law enforcement agencies through community policing initiatives, the Department of Justice through its Office of Justice Programs will announce a $20 million Body-Worn Camera (BWC) Pilot Partnership Program in May to respond to the immediate needs of local and tribal law enforcement organizations. The investment includes a $19 million competitive BWC pilot partnership program for the actual purchase of BWCs, training, and other technical assistance as well as $1 million for the Bureau of Justice Statistics to develop evaluation and survey tools to study best practices regarding the evidentiary impacts of body-worn cameras.

And there’s more. For departments willing to become part of a research program examining the various effects of police body cams, the DOJ, according to this week’s announcement:

[W]ill provide up to $2 million to law enforcement agencies interested in partnering with a research partner to examine the impact of the implementation of body-worn cameras on citizen complaints, the process and outcome of internal investigations, privacy issues, community relationships, and the cost-benefit ratio of implementing a body-worn camera program.

And U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley is also on board, issuing this statement on the new federal offerings:

This new program will enhance the services and protections local law enforcement agencies provide in our communities. The program can also build trust and keep officers and the public safe. I urge law enforcement agencies and local governments to look into implementing this program and accessing available grants to reduce associated costs.

With that said, the lingering questions from agencies still timid about the new technology seem to have largely been answered. The question now is whether or not they’ll jump on this opportunity.

For more on body cams and the impact they've already had on agencies throughout South Louisiana, check out our October cover story “The Case for Cams” here.