Commissioner Upset with City Manager Push Back on Police Body Cameras
Last updated 5/13/2020 at 6:45pm
Three months after a Jan. 30 city workshop to discuss body worn cameras for Lake Wales police officers Commissioner Terrye Howell asked City Manager Ken Fields for an update. She believed the commission gave clear direction that body cameras were to be included in the 2020-21 budget.
Instead of offering options and the requested cost analysis, Fields emailed all commissioners a potential first-year price tag of $175,000 and advised that the project should not go forward. That figure, hurriedly estimated to respond to Howell's inquiry, involved no real research or price quotes, and Fields failed to disclose that the $75,000 he estimated for "storing, managing and retrieving the resulting images and training officers" was actually added to support a full-time supervisory position in the police department.
"Given the uncertainty of revenues for next year's budget due to the impact of the current pandemic, a decision to move forward with such a program without seeing the city's overall financial outlook is not advised or could require significant reallocation of resources in other areas of the budget," Fields wrote.
The first $100,000 Fields cited was based upon information Deputy Police Chief Troy Schulze gathered via phone from a sales representative for Axon, the reported market leader whose body worn cameras are being used by more than 6,000 U.S. police agencies, including at least 200 in Florida. Schulze said he did no real research into options and the numbers he provided were "ballpark" estimates based upon one recent purchase of the company's top-of-the-line equipment by a similar size police department.
"This was a phone call. It was not a request for an official quote," Schulze said, noting a full analysis would require much more research as well as input from technology experts.
Unhappy with what she considered Fields' obvious attempt to sway commissioners, Howell said: "Either he's covering up or he doesn't want it done or he's again ignoring what commissioners are asking for. It was a simple go and see. The prices I've heard are not that high."
Schulze acknowledged that the other department's purchase price was based upon Axon's top-of-the-line systems, which include cameras with the highest resolution, unlimited cloud storage, artificial intelligence, GPS and live streaming capability. Those options bring the annual costs to about $57,400 for 41 users. The high-end cameras cost $800 each and are replaced free at two and one-half and five years, Schulze said. According to a company representative, Axon also offers another camera with slightly lower resolution for about $520 each and a software licensing, retrieval and 1 terabyte storage package that would cost only about $10,000 per year for 41 officers.
Fields did not respond to questions from LakeWalesNews.net about whether he was trying to overestimate costs to discourage commissioners from going forward with the program. But that's exactly what Sara Jones, a local attorney who first proposed the body cameras, believes Fields was doing.
"They have used inflated budgetary and implementation concerns that are not based in sound research or fact to effectively remove the decision from the hands of elected officials with false flag claims that the issue is too complex or requiring more research," said Jones. "The fact is that I personally presented the city with a U.S. Department of Justice report detailing proper and improper implementation of body worn cameras and addressing each of the concerns that have been posed by city staff. That's not even to speak of the number of municipalities that have years-long successful body worn camera programs that are in effect today."
During the Jan. 30 workshop Howell and Commissioner Curtis Gibson expressed strong support for body cameras, both noting they were increasingly hearing citizen complaints about police harassment and intimidation. They said the body cameras would not only protect citizens, but discourage false complaints against officers. Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson asked for a full analysis with costs. Commissioner Al Goldstein then said he wasn't convinced of the need, but recently said he could support a pilot program. At the end of the tense, racially charged workshop Mayor Eugene Fultz said he had heard the strong citizen support for body cameras and wanted them included in the upcoming budget.
Howell said body cameras should be a budget priority even if the police department needs to delay purchase of vehicles, cut other expenses or forego raises. She said if city officials continue ignoring commission direction it may be time for new leadership.
Jones said the increase in citizen complaints against police officers demonstrates a need not only for body cameras, but also more community policing and training: "Honestly, I did not expect that city staff was making any genuine effort to address these concerns. The citizens who fear the police are the same citizens that find it difficult to deal with the city. My intention was to shine light on the issue and create a better environment for the citizens of the Northwest neighborhood."
While not on the agenda, commissioners are expected to bring up the body camera issue at their next city commission meeting May 19.