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Fairfax County Police Ask for a Little Patience on Body-Worn Cameras

Local citizens and county supervisors have been putting pressure on the police to embrace body-worn cameras, particularly after funding for the devices wasn’t included in this year’s county budget proposal.

But Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler told Tysons Reporter that the budget decision isn’t about priorities: it’s about timing.

Roessler said that it wouldn’t make sense to include body-worn cameras in the budget until an ongoing study of the recently completed pilot program, which among the findings would include a projected cost for the program, is completed and presented to the public this summer.

In 2014, Roessler put together a steering group to look at body-worn cameras, which put together a list of policies — like when officers should activate, or deactivate, the cameras and what footage to release or withhold.

“Sometimes it might be a child having a mental episode, and we don’t want to broadcast those things,” Roessler said.

Roessler said one of the biggest parts of the equipment cost will likely be digital storage, which Roessler said would give the program $4 million annual budget. An estimate from Fairfax County staff in response to a question from Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust estimated a $6 million total recurring cost.

In 2017, as other large agencies in urban jurisdictions were starting to purchase body cameras and get them onto the streets, the program went through pilot testing in Fairfax County.

“A lot of agencies were just purchasing equipment and rolling [it] out onto the street without research,” said Roessler. “My proposal was to pilot the project at several district stations with different demographics and different calls for service so we could get good samples for how these work in different circumstances.

The other big part of the pilot Roessler thought was critical was collaborating with American University for a study of the results of the project. While other departments, like D.C. and Boston, had pilot programs with research, Roessler said he was not satisfied with the level of academic rigor.

“I was not satisfied with results from Boston or D.C.,” Roessler said. “I believe that I have a responsibility to conduct a study with the highest levels of academic rigor… I’ve decided to do it this way because it’s the right thing to do.”

Roessler said there were instances where departments would not fully enforce their proposed body worn camera policies during the pilot phase, which he said would result in biased samples.

But the study won’t be completed and ready for presentation in time for the current budget season. With the FY 2020 budget starting in July, Roessler said funding body-worn cameras would be more likely to come up in next year or the following year’s budget discussions.

“In a June public safety meeting, I will present the American University findings of the project and the potential scope of cost so the [Board of Supervisors] can make informed decisions,” Roessler said.

At the March 6 meeting, the McLean Citizens Association voted to table the resolution to implement the body worn camera program until the results from American University are published.

“We want to get it right, said Roessler. “Other departments rushed it, got it wrong, and it cost taxpayers millions because they have to take cameras back and start all over. ”

Roessler said the department is also working with the commonwealth attorney’s office on navigating the workload and costs from body cameras. Not only would the cameras add hours of footage for the commonwealth attorney’s office to sort through during court cases, but Roessler said how long files will be kept in costly digital storage.

But despite the costs, Roessler said he believes there are advantages for both police officers and the public with body-worn cameras.

“Clearly, body-worn cameras won’t solve everything,” said Roessler. “They won’t give a 360-degree view, but it does help for accountability. Until I understand the scope of the cost, we do have a lot of priorities and the cost may depend on the projection for the county budget.”

Photo via Fairfax County Police

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