The White House's push for police body cameras raises a number of questions for law enforcement: When can officers turn their cameras off? What happens to unused footage? How much will this plan cost a police department on a tight budget? For the companies that already manufacture and sell body cameras, though, it’s already clear that the new federal initiative is going to mean lots and lots of dollars.
The Obama administration announced Monday it would dedicate $263 million to strengthening police training, increasing oversight and purchasing body cameras for at least 50,000 officers throughout the U.S.
Following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the plan comes amid an ongoing national conversation about police accountability. Yet rather than feeling like they’re being supervised more closely, a growing number of America's approximately 600,000 police officers have greeted the plan with relief, according to one New York State official.
An officer wearing a camera while on patrol, the idea goes, is probably less likely to be accused of something he or she didn’t do, plus individuals are more likely to obey the law if they know they’re on camera. Even before Ferguson, that mentality was prevalent enough to keep a number of body camera sellers operating, though business owners have said the events in Missouri -- combined with the presidential directive -- will create a windfall in the immediate future.
“Every police officer knows someone who was falsely accused of something and wound up with a black mark on their record, or with time at their desk because they were falsely accused of something,” said Todd Morris, the CEO of BrickHouse Security, which started selling GPS equipment before moving into body cameras eight years ago.
Annual sales have exceeded tens of thousands of units, Morris said, a “disproportionate” number of which coming from individual officers nervous they’ll be in front of a grand jury for an incident they remember differently than an accuser. Still, police departments have been reluctant to adopt cameras because of questions about technology, how long the footage should be available and limited funding. Wearing a camera should not “put a police officer’s career in jeopardy for no reason,” said the New York State official, who asked not to be identified.
Some of the concerns fade away, however, when agencies learn the affordable cost of body cameras (generally between $150 and $300 per unit), and when they learn that, of an eight-hour shift, an officer on average only records the two to four hours in which he deals with the public.
“There are still some who I’m sure are a little bit skeptical,” said Sam Lehnert, the marketing manager at Byron Center, Michigan-based Pro-Vision. “They’ll want to find out more information before they’re outfitted, but when they actually do trials I see a word-of-mouth among officers and I think the feeling is more good than bad.”
Officers fitted with Pro-Vision cameras can turn them off, saving money on data storage rather than recording innocuous conversations with another officer or making an informant feel unsafe. Some departments already using body cameras require police to state why they’re deactivating a camera before doing so.
Pro-Vision already counts domestic U.S. police departments as part of its clientele, as well as authorities in 30 other countries. Lehnert estimated the company has grown by about 40 percent every year since it was founded as a dashboard camera maker in 2003.
Part of the reason demand will “absolutely” grow, according to BrickHouse’s Morris, is that departments are starting to realize that by paying less than $300 per camera, they can potentially save the community hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in payouts on legal settlements.
Government contractors specializing in surveillance equipment will almost certainly increase their camera production. Taser, the second-largest U.S. body camera maker, experienced a 75 percent stock surge after Brown’s death. The White House plan specifically put aside $75 million for purchasing cameras.
“If money were no object I’d think that everyone would have them within five years,” Lehnert said. “But now Obama is saying he doesn’t want money to be an object.”