It’s something the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is keenly aware of after a recent request to the county commission’s Budget Committee for a half-million dollar budget amendment to buy the most advanced body and dashboard cameras available for its deputies.
Even with the expense, leaders acknowledge the important role video can play in determining the sequence of events that someone has questioned.
“It’s not only to protect the officer, it also protects the defendant or victim,” said Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley. His officers don’t have body cams, and not all of his patrol cars are equipped with in-car cameras, but Hensley said he would like to outfit every car and officer.
The Washington County Budget Committee voted last week to recommend the County Commission amend the county’s capital plan to cover the $548,420 needed for the purchase. The planning process also included upgrading the sheriff’s office data storage servers to handle the additional information from the cameras.
WCSO Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen said the plan is to buy 111 body cameras — at a cost of $1,240 each — for all patrol deputies and school resource officers. In addition, the Sheriff’s Office will retrofit 80 patrol cars with dash cameras at a cost of $5,044 each. The cameras are part of an integrated high-tech system developed by Texas-based WatchGuard, an industry leader in body and dash cameras for law enforcement.
WCSO Deputy Chris Shepherd told Budget Committee members Wednesday both the new cameras would become operational as soon as he activates his patrol car’s sirens and lights. He said other features include a 30-second backup on the video that could help in proving “probable cause” and a system that provides an automatic download of camera video to a secure server.
Laitinen said the new cameras are a great improvement over current cameras used by deputies, which she says are unreliable and cumbersome to operate. She said the WCSO has decided that it should either have dependable body cameras for every deputy, or abolish the use of body cameras altogether.
Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner said body cameras were something former Chief Mark Sirois explored, but never got to the point he was ready to approach the city commission for the needed funding.
”I think we’ll certainly take a look at it sometime,” Turner said. “Right now I have to concentrate on our budget, so it’s not on our radar in the next few months.”
The police department does have a handful of cameras used only by investigators on special operations.
“Part of it is the storage of the footage from those. There is an initial cost to buy them but there’s a greater cost for the storage,” Turner said.
That’s also an issue for the smaller counties and towns in the region.
“We’re looking at that,” Hensley said. “You have to budget to buy those, but you have to keep the recordings to store everything. That can get very expensive.”
Jonesborough Public Safety Maj. Jamie Aistrop said the department’s 16 full-time officers are equipped with the cameras.
“We’ve talked about newer technology,” he said. “We have great cameras that get great video, but there are a lot of systems that sync with the dash camera,” and Jonesborough’s do not. “That is something we have researched,” Aistrop said. “The body cams we have now are three years old, but it’s HD video ... really good quality video.”
Aistrop said the video can benefit officers and citizens when there is a question about an encounter.
“Any time we have a complaint on an officer, we review the body cam footage,” he said. “Ninety-nine times out of 100 we feel like the body cam exonerates the officer.”
Jonesborough officers recently captured a deadly encounter with a man last month who charged at officers with a knife after they encountered him while conducting a drug investigation. Mark Harrell was shot several times during the incident and the event was caught on several officers’ body cameras.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is handling the investigation of that incident.
Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said his officers have had body cameras assigned to them since 2015, and he has never regretted the move.
“We’ve made several good cases by having the video,” Tilson said. “It’s fantastic for use-of-force cases. It doesn’t see everything ... but I think it’s important to have it. I think it changes how things happen on either side of the camera. It protects the officer and the citizen.”
Because of the costs, his 14 officers wear less-expensive models than what Washington County deputies will have, but they also don’t have all the capabilities. He, too, has faced the rising cost of data storage.
“I've recently spent $5,000 on another storage system,” he said. “Even as small as we are, it takes a lot of storage .. and it’s backed up so if the system goes down we don’t lose those videos. Storage is always going to be an issue; these cameras are worth their weight in gold.”
In her presentation to the budget committee, Laitinen said the sheriff’s office is defending two lawsuits — two suits that resulted from the same shooting — where an officer shot a man believed to be armed.
“We’ve got two officer-involved shooting cases in litigation now,” Laitinen said. “They weren’t wearing a body camera, or the one they had wasn’t working. A half-million is a lot of money, but we will likely spend that amount on defending two officer shootings.”