House Approves Using DEA Money for Body Cameras

On Tuesday the House of Representatives unanimously passed an amendment to the  Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bill, introduced by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), which takes $10 million from Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) funds for salaries and expenses and puts it towards the Department of Justice’s Body Worn Camera Partnership Program. The program provides 50 percent matching grants for law enforcement agencies that wish to use body cameras.  

Prior to the passage of Castro’s amendment, the appropriations bill provided $15 million for the body-worn camera partnership initiative, $35 million less than requested by the Obama administration.

Castro’s amendment is one of the latest examples of legislation aimed at funding police body cameras which, despite their potential to be great tools for increasing law enforcement accountability, are expensive.

The cameras themselves can cost from around $100 to over $1,000 and are accompanied by costs associated with redaction and storage. The fiscal impact of body cameras is a major reason why some police departments have not used the technology. In 2014 the Police Executive Research Forum received surveys from about 250 police departments and found that “39 percent of the respondents that do not use body-worn cameras cited cost as a primary reason.”

An Illinois body camera bill on Gov. Rauner’s desk not only outlines body camera policies for Illinois police agencies that want to use body camera but also introduces a $5 fee on traffic tickets aimed at mitigating the cost of body cameras.

I have written before about why a federalist approach to body cameras is preferable to a federal top-down approach with attached financial incentives. If Rauner signs the Illinois bill into law it will be interesting to see how effective a traffic ticket fee is in funding the use of police body cameras. If it works state lawmakers may well seek to implement similar plans in their own states.

I am all for the DEA having its budget cut (ideally to $0), but the federal government providing conditional grants for body cameras is risky because some law enforcement agencies may implement federal policy recommendations not because they are the best but because doing so will cut costs. Grant applicants are urged to review a body camera paper published by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and to “incorporate the most important program design elements in their proposal.” Unfortunately, the COPS body camera paper includes a worrying policy recommendation: allowing police officers to view body camera footage of incidents before they make a statement.

Federal lawmakers ought to be part of the ongoing discussions on police body camera policies, but federal policy proposals and suggestions shouldn’t come with financial assistance attached.