The Hidden Expense of Police Body Cameras

When police departments began equipping their officers with body cameras, I thought it was a great idea. Capturing a video record of police encounters could settle a lot of controversies. It never occurred to me that reviewing the video would be so exorbitantly time consuming that local prosecutors would have to hire additional employees — or that local governments would balk at the expense.

Earlier this year Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, proposed requiring any locality buying body cameras for patrol officers to hire one additional entry-level assistant commonwealth’s attorney for every 50 body cameras deployed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch informs us.

Other lawmakers nixed the idea but, in the grand tradition of the General Assembly, decided to study the matter. Now a special panel is investigating, in the words of the budget language, “how body worn cameras have or may continue to impact the workloads experienced by Commonwealth’s Attorneys offices.”

In Chesterfield County, body cameras have become quite the burden, reports the T-D. Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport has said that the hours of footage exceeds the capacity of his staff to watch it. The workload, he said, caused him to recently curtail the number of misdemeanors his office prosecutes. Meanwhile, the county’s new police chief is re-examining when officers turn on their cameras during an incident and which officers should carry them. Norment’s idea would have cost Chesterfield County between $800,000 to $900,000 for eight additional lawyers. 

Bacon’s bottom line: I find myself baffled. How can this be a problem? The overwhelming majority of police encounters are uncontroversial. Sure, police departments should save and catalog the video in case it’s needed later. But how many cases warrant an examination of the video feed? And how many hours does it take to review a single tape?

I’m also bewildered why Chesterfield would need to hire eight new lawyers at an average compensation of $100,000 a year. Why does it take someone with a law degree to review police video and isolate the five or ten minutes of footage relevant to the case? Can’t you hire a couple of college kids for $15 an hour to do the grunt work and hand off the relevant footage to the prosecutor in charge of the case?

Really, how difficult can it be to download police video for storage in the cloud, tag it with the officer’s name, date, and time of the encounter, have a intern in the C.A.’s office fetch the file in the relatively rare instances in which it might be germane, snip footage of the encounter, and pass along a clip to the prosecutor?

From my vantage point, the controversy makes so little sense that there must be more to it than meets the eye. But perhaps state and local government just isn’t very good at handling certain tasks. Perhaps there’s a business opportunity for an enterprise to do the job for them at half the cost.

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14 responses to “The Hidden Expense of Police Body Cameras”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well, I mostly agree.. It very much is an issue of efficiency and on new things and even older things – govt’s first approach is to tally up everything that needs to be done – on a static basis… then ask for more money.

    All kinds of evidence from stolen property to rape kits and DNA is collected, labeled and stored for later retrieval.

    If officials want to do other things like survey some police interactions perhaps with some specific individuals – fine – but you don’t need to be doing any/all of them.

    This is also a prime area for data processing and even AI and in turn opportunity for private sector entrepreneurship.

    But finally I ask is public safety and this – subsidized and if so – how do we decide what is worth or should be subsidized and what should not?

    Public safety, transit, health care? In other countries – all 3 are considered essentially taxpayer-funded govt services… right?

    p.s. – I’m not convinced that the police are selectively using body cam video when it makes them look good and just and somehow the video that shows them not so good – is missing or not available. Perhaps there should be 3rd
    party custody of all videos?

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This bureaucratization of police body cameras illustrates an iron rule that dictates more and more of the behaviors of our levitation governments who now commandeer most all available tools that could otherwise be deployed in highly useful and efficient ways in better perform the law enforcement mission as it was originally chartered, and use those tools instead to feed, grow, and enrich the private interests, ideologies and well being of those who manage the bureaucracies that “own and control that tool. Thus corrupt leaders use public tools to bloat and transform their own bureaucracy into corrupt machines that serves only their leaders own self interests.

    You see this everywhere today in America’s key institutions.

    Take for example how much of the Virginia state and local police actions or lack of actions were initially designed to promote illegal actions against lawful demonstrations, and instigate flare ups of trouble during the 2017 summer and springs riots in Charlottesville, instead of being deployed to protect lawful demonstrators, and to thwart flareups of trouble by reason of those illegal activities against them. It was a corrupt design of law enforcement that worked as planned. So it achieved its corrupt political end.


    Take for example how the Obama administration was well on its way to corrupting America’s air traffic control system, starting in 2013 a program designed to hire most all traffic controllers solely on the basis of their race, politics and gender, without regard their qualifications to do the the job.

    Many of America’s schools and universities are also prime examples. Many long ago abandoned their original mission – the rigorous teaching of kids and holding them to high standards of learning and performance. Many schools have replaced that original mission with a new one that serves primarily those who run the schools. They buy off their students with fun and amusement and corrupt instruction, so that those who run the schools (administrators and former teachers) can pursue their private interests, hobbies, and money making schemes, whether off of research or from coddling kids, or creating junk scholarship that they peddle to the bias of our mainstream press and social media, or others in the academy .

  3. CrazyJD Avatar

    Reed, Give it a rest on corrupt design etc. I might agree with you in certain situations but you seem to be falling into that sweeping approach that we’re all trying to fight. See Peggy Noonan’s Saturday column re: trust in public institutions.

    More importantly, I think you are all failing to miss the point.

    Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) requires the prosecutor to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense. How do we know what’s exculpatory? Somebody has to look at the evidence, in this case, the video. That means somebody in the prosecutor’s office. Can the prosecutor rely on a secretary? Or the college intern? Only maybe to the extent that he/she can identify the parts that are not simply dead air (e.g. maybe, and just maybe, where the officer is in his car by himself writing a ticket) Unless the secretary is really up on Brady law, and the elements of a criminal offense as well as search and seizure law, he/she can’t determine what might be exculpatory. Hell, that “dead air” (the amount of time the cop spends writing the ticket) would be relevant exculpatory evidence on the issue of whether the cops waited too long for the drug dog to arrive on the scene. (See recent Supreme Court case of Rodriguez v. United States (2015) arising out of a traffic stop in Nebraska) Hell, a heckuva lot of prosecutors are unable to determine what is exculpatory. Does the college intern know about Rodriguez?

    These days, an awful lot of prosecutors don’t even bother to make that determination; they simply turn over their file to the defense. That way, they can’t be accused of committing a Brady violation: what they have, the defense has, goes the theory.

    So what if the prosecutor just turns over the video and doesn’t look at it? He probably can’t be accused of a Brady violation, but now he doesn’t know what other kind of evidence might be on the tape that might surprise him in the courtroom later (that “dead air” in the police car?). Suppose I’m the elected prosecutor and I get surprised in the courtroom a lot. Do I get reelected? Hmm…Somebody better look at the video.

    I don’t know the average time of the average video, but just think about how long the average police-citizen encounter might be, say a traffic stop where the car has the usual four people going for a ride. How long does it take to process the drunk driver who has consented to a search of his car? Maybe an hour? Because of the number of people in the car, there will be at least two, probably three, back up cops on the scene. So multiply that hour times the number of cops at the scene. What about the hour at the police station? How many cops are on that part of the process? Are we past 8 hours of video yet? Multiply times the number of these type cases up per day in a Chesterfield courtroom? I get something like a minimum of 24 hours of video per day per courtroom. There are at least four courtrooms on the first floor of the Chesterfield courthouse operating every day. You do the math.

    I may be wildly overestimating. But you can change the assumptions behind the calculation of these numbers and still get a helluva lot of videos to go through if the prosecutor is doing his job.

    I haven’t touched the poor court appointed defense attorney, who gets paid $90/hr up to a max of $445 for most felonies. He now has to go through 8 hours of video to protect his client. The state will not pay him to do so without the court waiving the $445 max. The appropriated amounts available for waivers usually runs out 9 months into the fiscal year. I submit that it will run out sooner with the advent of body cameras.

    Houston, we have a problem.

    1. Excellent points, Crazy. Thanks for the explanation. I suspected that the problem was bigger than pure bureaucratic inertia. It goes to how the criminal justice system is run. Still, I can’t help but think there are ways of dealing with the problem more cost efficiently than hiring eight lawyers (in Chesterfield).

    2. djrippert Avatar

      How many arrests does a policeman typically make in a week – beyond traffic tickets where the violator decides to just mail in a check? Doesn’t every arrest require the policeman to write up an arrest report and have the suspect fingerprinted? All the videos of actual arrests should be watched by the arresting officer (perhaps using fast forward) to make sure the arrest report is accurate. They should all be turned over to the defense. In fact, they should be accessible by the citizen who was stopped or detained whether there is an arrest or not. I doubt the vast majority of videos ever see the light of day in a courtroom. You get stopped for weaving in traffic, blow a .012 BAC … you’re drunk driving. Judges aren’t going to allow defense attorneys to play hours upon hours of useless video.

      The police in America have serious problems regarding their credibility. Last year a Farifax County man, an accountant, was involved in a hit-and-run accident and fled the scene in his car. Not good. The Park Police pursued him and then killed him firing 9 shots into his car. He was unarmed. What the hell were they thinking? An FBI investigation has not provided any information … at least none that I’ve seen. I don’t care how long some new law school graduate has to look at videos – too many police in America are out of control. They need to be monitored and managed. They shouldn’t do anything that they would want to hide from public view.

  4. Make them pay for it out their Civil Asset Forfeiture funds.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    You make a wonderful point and illustrative example, Crazy.

    Perhaps 65 years ago, you would need and had 60 guys with shovels and a boss man to build a road. Today you need 60 paper shufflers and have only one guy with a shovel to build a road. In short, today quite likely we would not be able to build the Interstate road system for a whole variety of reasons akin to those “details” that you describe in your wonderful comment.

    And, while I may joke about how those details now undertaken by our institutions are ridiculous, and counter productive to performing their mission, those details still can be vitally important to all of those legitimately concerned about the outcome of a particular case as you illustrate, and also those details can be extremely important to those growing lists of ideologues who have no legitimate concerns in a particular case, but who nevertheless pretend to while they seek to twist and magnify little facts in order to gain great political advantage, including out of an everyday traffic stop on a highway.

    Hence, today very small matters otherwise irrelevant and common in earlier times can be blown way out of proportion with enormous consequences.

    For example, as to film and its consequences today consider:

    The Rodney King Case –
    The Trayvon Marin Case –
    The Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown –
    The 2017 C’ville Riots and attendant nonsense –

    And, for another example, the consequences that fell upon Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Coptic Christian in California who made a short video in 1212, what the American government did to that poor man by reason of his video.

    These few examples illustrate why I am not going to give my strident and “sweeping corruption comments a rest.” Otherwise these examples listed above will continue to become the norm rather than the exception without any opposition at all.

    1. Acbar Avatar

      Perhaps “today you need 60 paper shufflers and have only one guy with a shovel to build a road” — but tomorrow you will have the same 60 paper shufflers and an automated shovel operated by a robot — and one unemployed backhoe operator.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    Jim makes good points. Who the hell needs to watch every video? Banks have video too. Nobody watches day after day of bank security video to see nothing happening. But if the bank gets robbed the video turns out to be very useful. It’s also a deterrent to robbery. Hopefully, police body cams are a deterrent to inappropriate police behavior.

    Store the video and only review it when necessary. Why is this hard?

    There are also software based video analysis tools. For example, the way a video jangles when the policeman is running can be detected through software. Maybe you hire somebody to review the anomalies that the software detects. But watch every minute of even cop cam? You’ve got to be kidding me.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree with you and Jim as well. One obvious difference in your video bank example is that what goes on routinely in a bank has not yet been politicized and weaponized like cops on the street. Quite literally cops on the street are now stalked and filmed by some citizens out looking for trouble and mistakes.

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Let’s try to put more meat on these bones. Lets go beyond the legal rationale for the costly review of cop carried cameras that Crazy so well explains in his earlier comment. Lets try to explain why the time and effort devoted to these police cameras have, in some cases, reached obsessive levels. And why this upward trend of camera obsession by the police is likely to continue.

    I suggest that the main cause for these powerful trends, in many cases, has relatively little to do with legal requirements in the prosecution and defense of crimes. Instead I suggest these trends are far too often driven by the fact that the America’s police, and law enforcement more generally, now find themselves in squarely in middle of America’s culture and political wars, where many political factions care not a whit about the victims of crime, or the need to maintain law and order for public safety and citizens rights, and who instead seek their own political power and advantage over others. And in so doing these factions work hard to strip the police of the powers they need to do their job of protecting all the citizens within their communities.

    And that, on these new found battlefields within American communities, these cameras that are carried by police, or that are wielded against them by citizens who oppose them, are now easily weaponized against the police, while at the same time these cameras become critically necessary to the defense of the police against their political opponents, as well as those in the community who’s testimony as witnesses is often highly unreliable given the breakdown in our culture, including effort to politicize the court testimony of otherwise honest citizens.

    This also helps to explain why different sorts of incidents that would have hardly made the local news in earlier times now so easily become inflated into national scandals and campaigns that solve nothing, and that instead acerbate and spread and inflate those problems nationwide, to the point now of increasing national dysfunction. For example, as earlier mentioned:

    The Rodney King Case –
    The Trayvon Marin Case –
    The Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown –
    The 2017 C’ville Riots and attendant nonsense –

    Here too, we must ask ourselves why the Black Lives Matter movement rose out of events in Ferguson, but never addressed events in Chicago where real problems continue to kill over 700 innocents annually? And why White Supremacists threaten our civilization and Anifa protects us as we are told by the propaganda ginned up to explain the C’ville riots by those who instigated and inflamed those riots to serve their own political interests.

    This too helps to explain our growing obsession with film and video, as it relates to what happens on our streets and what the police do about it. Film now is often the most lethal weapon in our political wars waged daily on our ever expanding battlefields that are popping up all over the country.

    This phenomena also helps to explain the national publication of seemingly unrelated non-events that are not newsworthy at all. For example, the amplification of the harmless video made by a Coptic Christian in California that the Obama administration falsely claimed to have caused the murder to four American’s in Bengazi, Libya. And, paradoxically, this helps to explain why many other real national tragedies never make the national or even local news. And why these national tragedies are never honestly explained or solved, but instead become chronic as they feaster and spread. Here again, for example, witness the annual carnage of shootings in cities like Chicago.

    Next I will try to shed light on some the strategies and tactics deployed by those who are behind this ongoing political agitation that creates our obsession with film that shows its end product played out on city streets.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Imagine for a moment, the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown without cameras. There was a public lynching of a police officer going at full steam on the streets of Ferguson and up the Federal chain of political power in Washington, until the release of all the camera footage. Still, that rampage against the Ferguson police department continued for years at the Federal level in Washington, despite the innocence, and professionalism, of the Ferguson police officer forced by extreme violence to defend himself.

      Yet, in stark contrast, Rahm Emanuel reigns over killings by gunfire going on at a record pace (760+ a year) in Chicago without complaint from political factions rioting from Charlottlesville Va. to Portland Oregon.

      Imagine for a moment, the 2017 Charlottesville riots without cameras. You cannot imagine it there with any accuracy, either, without all the films. Why? Because there was a public lynching going on there in C’ville too until the Hunton and Williams Report. That lynching, in my opinion, went from the governor of Virginia to the President of UVA on down, until the release of the Hunton and Williams Report. And that report could never have found and told the truth, or anything close to the truth, without all the videos taken of the event.

      Yet, even now, that highly reliable and truthful report produced by Hunton and William’s attorney, staff, and consultants has been buried by powerful political forces and special interests in Virginia and nationally to keep a false narrative alive, a false narrative of untruths that they peddle daily even now.

      As a result:

      Surely by now those who run police departments honestly must have learned an important lesson the hard way, namely: you must film and record everything having to do with your department as to that happens out in public or privately. You must also keep voluminous and meticulous written and other records that are well protected and backed up.

      And, you must and demand transparency from all in your department and from all of your political masters. You must demand an honest, fully independent and highly knowledgeable review board to oversee controversies, plus you should have a Hunton and William type Report structure for reinforcement, if necessary, to protect yourself, people, and mission, from the corruption rampant in American today, as best your can.

      And you must resist at all cost the political pressure bred into the Parkland shooting scenario, and those pressures and corruptions also baked into the riot happenings at Charlottesville in 2017.

      What a tough job. Being a good policeman and running a good police department today are surely among the most demanding jobs in America.

  8. hemcomm Avatar

    When I saw the proposal by Norment, I thought, “Now there is a poison pill.” If you are against body cameras, you are against transparency and accountability in our justice system. But if you are against Norment’s proposal, you are giving the police an unfunded mandate and putting more workload on the backs of already stretched law enforcement — one of the most lethal pills in the halls of the GA. With it, Norment gets to be the hero for saying we need to provide police with the resources to manage this program, and indirectly gets to kill the initiative (because he knows localities will not buy into it) without having to vote against body cameras. Or maybe I’m giving him too much credit. In any case, the question you pose is a good one: why hire a full-time attorney at $100k to review all footage from 50 cameras? It defies common sense. However, even questioning pragmatism and efficiency of law enforcement is a no-no — except in the space of Bacon’s Rebellion.

    1. Acbar Avatar

      Agree with your poison pill observation about Norment. And I am unpersuaded that the Brady decision requires what is being read into it. If the tapes are available to be screened by any party, or even by the public at large, why does anyone need to review them unless there’s some allegation that the process of arrest was mishandled? I thought the Brady mandate to share information was a two-way street, aimed at no surprises from either party. But I was not aware that either party has an obligation (under Brady or otherwise) to share material that’s available to both parties and neither party has reviewed — as opposed to, reviewed and identified as exonerating to the other party or proposed to be introduced as an exhibit. So let me ask the experts: is this correct? If so, then maybe the problem is simply solved by making the tapes available to review by defendants and/or the public automatically. Maybe what’s going on here is police resistance to that level of scrutiny.

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