Published Monday, May 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Updated Monday, May 7, 2012 | 5:31 p.m.
Metro Police don’t have dashboard cameras, but this month officers will begin testing one type of body-worn camera with hopes of purchasing more of the cameras and putting them into regular use within the next fiscal year.
No specific money has been set aside yet for the cameras, a county spokesman said Monday. But during Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee two weeks ago, Metro told County Commissioner Steve Sisolak the department could use money from its forfeiture fund for the potential purchase of the cameras and related expenses.
Sisolak sits as one of five members of the Fiscal Affairs Committee, which oversees Metro’s budget. He said testing of at least one camera could be completed in July, but the department planned to look at four or five more camera models before making a decision about which one to buy.
He added that he was happy Metro was moving toward getting the cameras.
“It’s something that will protect both officers who are wrongly accused and help clear up allegations and issues of police and citizen conduct more conclusively,” Sisolak said. “Ultimately, (the cameras) will strengthen the public’s trust in the department.”
To help ensure Metro’s entry into the new age of video documentation of police stops, a group called Cameras 2012 has formed. The local chapter of the NAACP and Restore Trust Las Vegas joined to form the group.
Richard Boulware, NAACP first vice president, said the group’s aim is not only to ensure the department gets body-mounted cameras but also dashboard cameras.
“There is no better way to restore faith in the police department and to vindicate police officers in light of unwarranted accusations,” he said.
Metro spokesman Sgt. John Sheahan said Metro doesn’t have dashboard cameras because most of an officer’s interaction with the public takes place outside his or her vehicle and out of view of those fixed cameras.
To get the body-mounted cameras in use, however, Metro might have to first defend itself in court. The Las Vegas Police Protective Association is not backing down from its contention such cameras can’t be forced upon officers without first negotiating with the union.
Chris Collins, union president, said the cameras represent a “clear change in working conditions,” as they add new requirements to an officer’s daily routine, including downloading the camera’s data. The cameras, he added, also could impact an officer’s safety. Both factors, he said, mean it is “mandatory” for the department to include the cameras within the scope of its union contract.
If the department moves to buy the cameras without that contractual consideration, “we are going to take legal action,” Collins added.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie could not be reached for comment. But when the Sun outlined a similar union argument in February, the sheriff replied that he didn’t see body cameras as a contract matter. If the union’s contention on the camera were true, Gillespie had reasoned, the department also would have to negotiate when putting lights on a police car and a shotgun inside it.
Gillespie had said he was committed to getting the body cameras, which are being used or tested at hundreds of departments throughout the country. At the time, the sheriff’s only worry was how to pay for the program.
In the coming year, the department projects a base forfeiture fund of $1.45 million, with an additional $6.88 million added to it from the fund balance of the overall budget to bring the total to $8.3 million. The forfeiture fund shows projected expenses of $5.2 million for “minor equipment” and $2.8 million for “capital equipment.”
Sisolak said that until a camera model was chosen, the exact amount of money drawn from the fund to pay for the cameras wouldn’t be known.
When a camera system eventually is picked, the biggest expense will be data storage, Sheahan said.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving, so to speak,” Sheahan said of the potential cost of storing video of police calls.
The body-camera systems are proprietary, so storage would likely be the responsibility of the chosen company, which likely also would charge a fee for storage.
Metro officers, Sheahan added, are called up to 1 million times per year. Even if only a fraction of those results in some video record, the storage requirements could be daunting.
Storage costs also will depend upon on how long Metro plans to store the video, which is policy that has not yet been worked out, Sheahan said.
In the interest of watching out for taxpayer dollars, Sheahan made clear Metro is moving ahead – but carefully. Though committed to getting body cameras, he said, the department doesn’t want to pick a system that will be technologically obsolete in six months.
Boulware, of Cameras 2012, said the cost of replacing the equipment shouldn’t be Metro’s main concern right now.
“That the technology may be obsolete in a year or two doesn’t mean you put accountability on hold,” he said.
He added that the amount of money Metro pays in settlements and legal fees for police misconduct cases may be more than the cost of replacing cameras every few years. Boulware also said “community groups” are talking about starting a campaign to educate the public about the use of and need for the video cameras.
Metro’s lack of even dashboard cameras became more noticeable due to some recent cases involving incidents of alleged police misconduct.
Earlier this year, for instance, the city of Henderson agreed to a nearly $260,000 settlement, with Nevada kicking in another $35,000, due to the dashboard recording of an October 2010 incident involving Henderson Police Sgt. Brett Seekatz.
Adam Greene was captured on a Nevada Highway Patrol dashcam swerving as he drove east on Lake Mead Parkway. After Greene was dragged from his car and five officers put him on the ground, Seekatz came into camera shot and kicked Greene in the head five times. Greene, it was discovered, was suffering from diabetic shock. Seekatz was disciplined by the department but not fired. City Council members said they didn’t know of the incident until this year. They were angered by it and, shortly after the Sun published the video, Henderson Police Chief Jutta Chambers announced her retirement.
Metro had its own embarrassing video incident from March 2011.
Resident Mitchell Crooks was videotaping police on a routine stop near Maryland Parkway and Desert Inn Road when Officer Derek Colling approached him and, within seconds, had Crooks, who was now screaming, on the ground and under arrest. Colling’s approach and questions are caught on video; then the camera is dropped. Talk and screaming can be heard, but none of the subsequent altercation is on video.
Crooks filed a federal lawsuit alleging his rights were violated. Charges against Crooks were dropped, and the sheriff fired Colling in December. (Trying to get his job back, Colling filed a complaint with an arbitrator.)
In February, Metro agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement to Crooks.