Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 11, 2013

Car cameras on hold

City to review spending $40,000 to add video units to its patrol cars


TRAVERSE CITY — Some city commissioners are balking at a request to install video cameras in 10 city police patrol cars, a project that carries a $40,000 price tag.

The city has had video cameras in seven patrol cars since about 2004, though few people outside of the department seemed to know it. Only two of the cameras are functional today, thanks to software incompatibility with police in-car computers.

"They have really proven effective in the past," city Police Capt. Brian Heffner said of the video cameras. "They are used as evidence in crimes, drunk driving arrests, fights after bar closings, and it helps the officer, too, if allegations were made against the officer."

The cameras are a new request in the city's $1.6 million general fund that city commissioners will review during a study session today at 7 p.m. in the Governmental Center. The city's overall capital improvement plan that includes water, sewer, parking, bayfront, and Downtown Development Authority projects totals almost $14 million.

Mayor Michael Estes said $40,000 seems like a lot of money and he's not sure city officers should worry about playing to the camera instead of doing their job.

"I don't know if we want every officer operating under the constant scrutiny of the camera," Estes said. "Somebody would have to make an awful good case as to why we would need it."

Commissioner Jim Carruthers said he'd rather see the money go toward hiring another police officer.

"Our cars are equipped with about every electronic convenience possible," Carruthers said. "I'm sure they will justify it in some way, all in the name of the safety of our citizens."

Heffner said officers like the cameras because they know everything they say and do goes on tape should someone make an allegation against them. Cameras are on continuously but don't create a permanent record until overhead flashers are turned on or if the car is hit. The cameras then capture and record about 60 seconds of the previous video, depending on the camera. Officers also can manually start the cameras.

Tapes also are used for a wide range of training purposes, Heffner said.

"It shows us things that could have been done differently and things that could have been done better," Heffner said.

Heffner said he didn't know if police video has been used to discipline a city officer or correct behavior.

The Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department hasn't used cameras, other than as part of a small pilot project, Undersheriff Nate Alger said.

"We have so many cars it makes it cost-prohibitive," Alger said. "We've not had a need."