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Even before Ferguson, Missouri, became a flashpoint in the debate over police accountability, Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry saw the value of outfitting his officers with body cameras, not only for them, but also for the citizens they’re sworn to protect.
The August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, at the hands of Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, sparked widespread outrage and talk of reform across the nation, even inside the White House.
In December 2014, President Barack Obama established a task force to study policing in the 21st century. He also sought more than $250 million to begin outfitting police officers with body cameras and improve their training.
When the task force issued its recommendations in March 2015 officer-worn body cameras were on the list. Obama warned, however, that the technology was “not a panacea.”
But by then the Kauai Police Department was already on board.
The department had tested the technology in late 2014 as part of a pilot program. In June 2015, the Kauai County Council unanimously approved purchasing 105 cameras for its patrol officers from Taser International for $176,718. Kauai officers have been wearing them ever since.
“At first the officers were a little reluctant,” Perry said. “Of course change is always difficult, but as time has gone on they’ve adapted. They understand the value in terms of recording what actually happened both to protect the citizens and to protect themselves from false allegations.”
According to KPD, the number of use of force incidents dropped from 37 in 2015 to 11 in 2016. So far this year, the department has reported only two cases in which officers used force while making an arrest or subduing a suspect.
The department has also seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of time it spends investigating false allegations of officers acting rudely or otherwise being unprofessional or discourteous while interacting with citizens, such as when performing a traffic stop.
Before body cameras were in use, the department’s internal affairs division used to spend approximately 30 hours investigating a citizen complaint against an officer. When there’s body camera footage available, KPD officials say that figure drops to about five and half hours.
Perry said the mere fact officers and citizens know they’re being recorded can help mitigate potentially tense situations. Both sides know they’re being watched, Perry said, which often keeps citizens and officers on their best behavior.
It also reduces the likelihood of an officer letting his or her temper get the best of them when a suspect is being belligerent. Perry said that reduces the chance someone becomes a victim of “street justice” at the hands of an officer.
“That’s what we don’t want,” Perry said. “This is a very good program, and the officers deserve it.”
Despite Kauai’s buy-in, Hawaii’s other county police departments have been slow to implement a full-scale body camera program. Both the Big Island and Maui police departments have launched pilot programs, but have yet to finalize a major purchase.
The Honolulu Police Department, too, has been slow in implementing a body camera program, despite being the largest law enforcement in the state with nearly 2,000 sworn officers.
HPD officials told a City Council committee last month that they planned to implement a pilot project by the end of the year in at least one patrol district. The idea would be to test the technology in a district that has a high rate of citizen complaints against officers.
Department officials said they would also work closely with the police union — the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers — on a policy that dictates how the technology is used, such as when a camera is turned on or off.
The union has been heavily involved in trying to shape body camera policy, particularly on Kauai.
While SHOPO and the department were able to come to an agreement on the specifics of the KPD body camera policy, union officials felt the program couldn’t move forward without them officially signing off on it. Perry disagreed with that and the union filed a complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board. The board ultimately sided with KPD, and the union also lost its appeal of the labor board decision in state Circuit Court.
Vladimir Devens, an attorney who represents SHOPO, said the union intends to appeal the Circuit Court decision. He said the fight isn’t over whether body cameras are a good thing, it’s over whether the use of the technology results in a change of workplace conditions that must be negotiated under the collective bargaining agreement.
“We were 100 percent in favor of body cameras from day one,” Devens said. “We think it’s an excellent tool for the officers. That’s not what the challenge is about. The challenge is that we believe a policy that affects working conditions must be negotiated with the union.”
“I wish that the Legislature would just do what the people need to be done on this issue.” — Hawaii State Rep. Matt LoPresti
Cost has a been a prohibitive factor in Hawaii County, where Police Chief Paul Ferreira has publicly supported implementing his own body camera program. The problem he’s said is the money needed to pay for all the equipment and digital storage.
According to Hawaii County Police Maj. Sam Thomas, the department estimates it will cost about $381,000 to outfit 300 officers with body cameras.
Thomas said the department would also need additional staff — three full-time employees at a cost of $231,000 a year — to manage the data, which could include processing footage for public release under the state’s public records law.
“We just can’t afford it right now,” Thomas said. “Our chief wants it. He wants to have a body camera program. But these are the issues that we have to overcome.”
HPD declined a Civil Beat request for an interview. But during a budget briefing last month officials said the department allocated $1 million in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, to pay for the pilot project.
Maui County police officials did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for information.
Police body cameras have been on the state’s legislative agenda for at least the past two years, but the issue has yet to gain real traction.
In 2016, a bill that would have required county police departments to implement both body-worn and vehicle-mounted cameras by July 1, 2018 died during the annual conference committee deliberations.
While SHOPO and the county police departments generally supported the legislation, there were lingering concerns about who should be writing the rules for body camera use.
Several bills were introduced this year to as well, but they all faced a similar fate. No body camera measures are currently still alive in the Hawaii Legislature.
Hawaii Rep. Matt LoPresti has been a vocal advocate of outfitting Hawaii’s police forces with body cameras. Last year he teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii on body camera legislation. He introduced another bill this year that would have mandated county police departments to have a fully operational program by 2019.
The legislation also would have included a financial appropriation for each county.
“It’s about protecting the integrity of law enforcement and the justice system, and protecting citizens who have encounters with the police,” LoPresti said. “It helps everybody except for anybody breaking the law. That means if you’re a criminal breaking the law in the presence of a police officer they catch it on camera. And, conversely, if there’s a bad apple police officer that abuses their power that’s captured too.”
LoPresti’s legislation didn’t get so much as a hearing after it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Scott Nishimoto.
Another body-camera measure, introduced by state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, also died in Nishimoto’s committee after unanimously passing the Senate. It was the second time in two years that Keith-Agaran, who’s one of the few state lawmakers SHOPO has openly endorsed, saw his body camera legislation die before becoming law.
“It’s really frustrating,” LoPresti said of the repeated failures to get a bill passed. “I wish that the Legislature would just do what the people need to be done on this issue.”