Pleasant Grove’s body cameras should stay on

The following op-ed, written by our president Connor Boyack, was published this week in the Daily Herald.

In an age of increasing transparency, Pleasant Grove is choosing to go dark.

A recent article in the Daily Herald claims that the city’s law enforcement agency was “forced to stop using” body cameras, which “strikes a blow to police investigative work and protection of officers and citizens.” This claim is flagrantly false; the city is choosing of its own accord to stop using cameras.

A law recently passed by the Utah Legislature, which Libertas Institute proposed along with ACLU Utah and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, establishes new requirements for law enforcement agencies using body cameras in order to ensure they are used properly. Among other things, the law requires officers to record a law enforcement encounter in “in an uninterrupted manner” to document their interactions with the public.

Obviously, documenting these interactions creates a large amount of digital footage that must be stored—and that’s the perceived problem in Pleasant Grove. According to police chief Mike Smith, the city would need to come up with $10,000 to $15,000 to store all of the footage.

Rather than look for the money, they’re apparently forgoing body cameras altogether. This is a step backward and a failure of leadership; this paltry sum can easily be allocated if the city chose to prioritize public safety and law enforcement transparency above other approved spending. 

Pleasant Grove’s 2016-2017 budget presents a number of opportunities to proverbially look through the cushion pillows for loose change. Here are just a few expenditures that could be reduced or eliminated in order to provide the money necessary for body camera footage:

  • The city is contributing $220,000 in taxpayer dollars to the Fox Hollow golf course.
  • $13,000 is allocated for a children’s choir.
  • The youth theater is being funded to the tune of $65,000.
  • The round figure of $50,000 is being set aside for a restroom at the rodeo grounds.
  • A “recreation vehicle” is costing taxpayers $28,000.
  • $65,000 is budgeted for “fitness equipment.”

The list of Pleasant Grove’s expenditures that should be prioritized below public safety goes on. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Large hard drives and cloud storage solutions are extremely affordable and plummeting in price each day.

Some might assume that this is an excuse on the part of police to get out of having to record their actions. I don’t believe this is true; almost every officer we’ve spoken to prefers using a camera system. Chief Smith himself noted, “The officers love the cameras. The officer knows what he is doing and saying is being recorded and so does the citizen.”

So let’s assume, for conversation’s sake, that Pleasant Grove indeed cannot find $10,000 to pay for the body cam footage. Imagine that next week an officer gets into an altercation with a citizen that is not documented. A complaint is filed, as is a lawsuit. Without exculpatory evidence to show the officer was innocent of the charges, the city finds that it has to settle.

What is the cost in staff time, attorney fees, and the payment of damages to the complainant in this case? Surely more than $10,000. This investment should be seen as insurance against higher costs down the road. Forgoing cameras altogether because of this relatively small amount of money is short sighted. City leaders should not let it happen.

Justice and public safety are worth the price and should be prioritized above recreational activities and other unnecessary expenditures. Especially in an age of quickly decreasing storage costs, law enforcement agencies and the legislative bodies that oversee them should be fully committed to allocating the funding necessary to document and retain footage of critical incidents. These officers are acting with our delegated authority. We should be able to observe how that authority is being used. 

All eyes should turn to Pleasant Grove in the coming weeks to see if city leaders will stand by while their police chief uses a small financial sum as a reason to turn off the cameras.

We’re watching.