The entire St. Louis police force is getting outfitted with body cams — for free.
The embattled city agreed last week to accept 1,300 free police body cameras — enough for the whole force — from Axon, the company that makes Tasers, as part of a one-year trial program.
The announcement comes after 11 days of sustained protests following the Sept. 15 not guilty verdict for the white St. Louis police officer who killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, in 2011, echoing the 2014 Michael Brown case in nearby Ferguson that sparked widespread protests. Reports of the current protests allege harsh police tactics, with the ACLU bringing suit for “unlawful and unconstitutional” police conduct.
With this move, St. Louis can catch up with other big-city police departments that have implemented body camera programs in response to public outcry over police brutality. A 2016 survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs’ Association found that 95 percent of 70 law enforcement agencies polled were using or planned to use body cams. According to data from Axon, 41 of the 69 biggest cities in the U.S. use or have decided to use the technology.
“We’re a very divided city,” said Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, who introduced the plan. “When you look at some of our challenges moving forward, we need to have a climate where there’s more trust between residents and law enforcement and there’s a better working relationship.”
Reed is confident his plan can help provide that, but there are still some hurdles before the relationship with police on the ground changes. For one thing, the Department has to consult with the St. Louis Police Officers Association union before going forward with implementation.
“The city has a legal obligation to negotiate this with us,” Jeff Roorda, the union’s business manager, said. He’s meeting with union leadership Tuesday to formulate a position, but he expressed doubts about the trial program in the days immediately following the decision.
He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Thursday he wanted to “make sure our officers’ due process rights are protected,” as well as the privacy rights of citizens. “And we do want to make sure that guys aren’t singled out for discipline because of the department not liking them,” he added.
The City Council welcomes the union’s input and recommendations, and it already has the support of the interim police chief and the mayor’s office.
The trial is free for the first year, but major costs kick in after that. According to the contract with Axon, each camera would cost St. Louis $1,000 a year. That adds up to $1.3 million. St. Louis police piloted a more limited body camera program in December of 2015, but didn’t implement a wider effort due to cost constraints.
Even if the plan does go through, a 2016 Missouri law bars public access to policy body camera footage during ongoing investigations, and it also restricts the release of video filmed in “nonpublic” locations like homes, schools, and medical facilities.
Despite the potential hurdles, there are big potential profits here for Axon, which aims to offer free trials to all major police departments across the country.
So far, they’ve cornered the market. Of the 41 cities committed to or already using body cameras, 36 use Axon’s.
As police across the country have scrambled to meet calls for greater public accountability, that has meant a wave of cash for companies like Axon. Its body camera division raked in $65.6 million in net sales in 2016, up 85 percent from 2015.