Overland Park police officers this week began wearing body cameras that sync up with the existing dashboard camera systems in their vehicles, a move department officials say will help improve transparency.
However, some advocates say that to be truly effective in building community trust, the city must also set a policy ensuring that footage captured by the cameras is available to the public upon request.
The deployment of the new body camera systems comes after nearly 10 months of field testing, with six test cameras used by officers in the field since last December. On Monday, the department put the cameras into full circulation, deploying 200 of them to officers working in traffic safety, emergency services, community policing and school resource officer assignments. Cameras are also available to detectives working on investigations.
“Officers can activate the body worn camera system manually by pressing the record button at any time,” said Public Information Officer John Lacy. “The cameras are also capable of activating automatically any time the emergency lights and siren on their patrol car are activated. Any time the cameras are recording, the microphone on the camera will record audio as well.”
Lacy added that officers are “are really excited to have body cameras, which will provide more transparency.”
However, some say additional steps are needed to ensure the video systems are a benefit to public trust. Sheila Albers, a founder of the group JOCO United and the mother of John Albers, the 17-year-old who was killed when Overland Park Officer Clayton Jenison fired 13 shots into the van he was driving in January 2018, said current law in Kansas poses a barrier to ensuring body cameras add to law enforcement transparency.
“Body cameras are a great tool for training and exonerating falsely accused police officers,” she said. “However, under the current Kansas Open Records Act, body cameras do little to ensure transparency. As currently written, body camera footage can be discretionarily withheld from the public and deemed ‘a personnel matter.’”
Albers said she is encouraging the Overland Park City Council to codify policy making body camera footage available to the public.
“To be transparent, the Overland Park City Council should also develop a broad policy of disclosure on the release of body camera footage,” Albers said. “Public access to footage is crucial in building community trust and ensures that government officials do not arbitrarily withhold information from the public.”
The Overland Park City Council this summer approved the purchase of the 200 WatchGuard cameras put into use this week for a price not to exceed $430,000. Associated data storage for the system is estimated at approximately $60,000 per year.