It would cost nearly $30 million to outfit all 1,210 sworn Fairfax County police officers with body-worn cameras and pay for data storage and prosecutor reviews, but most county supervisors said July 9 the expense was necessary to maintain public confidence in the police department.
Following a briefing at the Board of Supervisors’ Public-Safety Committee meeting, supervisors said they would consider an action item – not hold a public hearing – on Sept. 24 to consider approving the program.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said the county could ill afford not to implement the cameras.
“We would be at a disadvantage as a police department,” she said. “We don’t want to take our foot off the gas. We’re known for being innovative.”
Supervisors John Cook (R-Braddock) and Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) acknowledged the cameras’ potential value, but said the price was too high. Herrity said he’d prefer the money be spent on recruiting and training the best possible officers.
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said the study’s presentation almost seemed intended to discourage supervisors from approving the body-camera program.
“What we have here is proof positive we have an issue in this county,” Foust said, adding the county would be “really, really sorry” if it did not implement the initiative.
David Rohrer, deputy county executive for public safety, said he apologized if the presentation had left a negative impression, but said he’d tried to ensure all the stakeholders’ views were represented.
“I can’t put a price on trust,” he said. “I understand perception is reality in so many ways.”
Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said a body-worn camera program would propel the county forward and improve the impressions of some segments of the community toward police.
“Some feel public safety won’t take them seriously,” she said, adding, “People of color feel they’re likely to be treated less than someone else.”
If approved by supervisors, the initiative would be phased in over three years. The police department’s Reston, Mason and Mount Vernon district stations, which took part in a six-month pilot program last year, would outfit their 416 officers with cameras during the first year.
The 338 officers at the Sully, McLean and Springfield stations would receive cameras the following year and the program’s third year would outfit the remaining 456 officers at the Fair Oaks, Franconia and soon-to-be-opened South County stations. Supervisors would confer with the School Board about camera usage by school-resource officers.
Full implementation of an initial five-year program would cost an estimated $29,861,654 and about $19.5 million of that would be necessary to hire 34 more employees. The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney would require 16 more attorneys and seven additional paralegal and administrative workers to help retrieve, review, redact and disseminate the extra video footage. The office now can accommodate about five more attorneys, so additional space would be required, officials said.
The police department would need three more information-technology workers, plus two more employees in its Media Relations Bureau to fulfill Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. About $120,000 also would be needed for improved wiring and cabling at police stations.
The county’s Department of Information Technology also would need one more worker to handle FOIA requests, plus five more employees to support the use of videos in courtrooms and present standardized digital evidence in the Circuit, General District, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts.
The Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office would not need any additional employees, but would require about $150,000 to increase storage in its records-management system for the video evidence.
County officials have expressed interest in body-worn cameras since 2014, following a county police officer’s fatal shooting of Kingstowne resident John Geer on Aug. 29, 2013.
Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. in June 2015 proposed a pilot program for body-worn cameras and the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission’s final report made a similar recommendation four months later.
Police conducted a six-month pilot project between March 3 and Sept. 1, 2018, assigning 191 cameras to randomly selected officers at the Reston, Mason and Mount Vernon stations. Department leaders strictly enforced policies about when the cameras should be turned on and off and obtained a high degree of compliance, officials said.
The pilot project yielded more than 59,000 videos lasting a total of more than 12,000 hours. This equaled about 23,500 terabytes of storage (one terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes of information). Police provided the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney with 34,404 videos, totaling 8,033 hours’ worth of footage.
County police upgraded information-technology infrastructure at those three stations to handle the videos and that is why those facilities would be first to receive full camera implementation, officials said.
American University professor Richard Bennett led a study of the pilot program and said one of the most surprising findings was that the vast majority of 603 local residents surveyed via telephone, even those who had been pulled over for speeding or interacted with county police under less-than-auspicious circumstances, still had a highly favorable opinion of the county’s police force.
Older people, as well as whites and Asians, were more likely to view their interactions with police positively than were younger people and those from the black, Hispanic and Native American communities, the study found. But about 92 percent of community members supported widespread adoption of the camera program, according to the study.
County police officers, whether assigned cameras under the program or not, generally agreed that the equipment would be useful in gathering evidence, improving transparency with the public and resolving complaints against officers.
Officers did not agree on whether cameras would increase police safety or improve relations with the public. At the pilot program’s end, officers who had been assigned cameras had become slightly more likely to favor department-wide implementation, but those who hadn’t were “dramatically less favorable toward adoption,” the study concluded.
The study also found, in accordance with officers’ expectations, that police and public behavior did not change because of the cameras. Many people already record police behavior with cell phones and other equipment and plenty of local residents think county officers, who carry a surprising array of gear on their belts and vests, already have cameras, Bennett said.
Officers also did not “de-police” (i.e., cut back on their enforcement efforts) out of fear the camera evidence would be used against them, he said.
Some officers worried a wider camera program would siphon away money otherwise available for pay raises. Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) said police pay was a separate issue from the camera program, which would be an investment in the department.
By conducting a pilot program, county officials avoided the plight of other jurisdictions that adopted police body-worn cameras early, then ceased their programs because of unanticipated problems, Bulova said.
“We did things right in Fairfax County,” she said. “We went down a methodical, careful road.”