Calls for transparency: Dover Council of Whole moves forward with police bodycams

By Mike Finney
Posted 1/28/21

DOVER — Following a tumultuous 2020 that saw nationwide protests and marches calling for social justice and police reform, the Dover Police Department is heading into the future seeking greater …

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Calls for transparency: Dover Council of Whole moves forward with police bodycams

Dover Police on patrol on Loockerman and State Street in Dover on Tuesday
Dover Police on patrol on Loockerman and State Street in Dover on Tuesday
Delaware State News/Marc Clery
Posted

DOVER — Following a tumultuous 2020 that saw nationwide protests and marches calling for social justice and police reform, the Dover Police Department is heading into the future seeking greater transparency and community involvement.

Following an in-depth virtual presentation by Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson regarding a body-worn camera program for the city’s police officers Tuesday night, members of the Council of the Whole’s Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee unanimously endorsed a staff recommendation and a motion to approve a body-worn camera program that is on track to begin this summer.

The program, which appears to have great support and momentum, still has to pass the vote of Dover City Council at its next meeting Feb. 8.

Dover’s body-worn camera program — which will also feature an integrated Taser component — will cost the city $799,930.10 over five years for equipment and support, along with the hiring of an evidence manager, which will cost $357,572 over the five years needed to maintain the program.

The body camera program, supported by Axon/Taser, will be backloaded due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and payment during the first year will be 8%, or $63,944.70, of the overall cost. Years 2 through 5 are equally divided at $183,996.35 per year, with an out clause provided if funding is threatened.

“It’s been made clear in recent years that society is hungry for certain reforms in the criminal justice system, and the policing profession has been a big focus in that larger conversation,” Chief Johnson said. “In our recommendation, I believe that we are making significant progress towards increased transparency and accountability.

“Those critical functions certainly include the review of police incidents, added credibility of reports (and) providing information to management that will drive decisions to increase the effectiveness of programs or initiatives, and, of course, a body-worn camera is a tangible item with the capacity to elevate public confidence in your police department.”

Several members of the Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee applauded when the motion to approve body cameras was carried Tuesday night.

“Based on Chief Johnson’s investigation and due diligence in presenting a total package and hybrid mechanism, I support and embrace his recommendation to upgrade our equipment to meet the demands of the contemporary era,” Dover Councilman Roy Sudler Jr. said. “The cost of public safety is priceless. However, the lack of public safety is catastrophic.”

Councilman Ralph Taylor Jr., a 20-year veteran of the Dover Police Department, agreed.

“Outstanding presentation, as usual. Absolutely excellent,” said Councilman Taylor. “As a former police officer in our community and a representative, as well. We started this (discussion) in September, and we promised our citizens that we would bring them our absolute best.”

Axon delivers value, is highly regarded

Dover police had been leaning toward its previously utilized company, Coban, for its body-worn camera program, but Chief Johnson said another alternative presented itself in Axon, a company that impressed the department with its offerings and brings its body-worn cameras and Tasers together with a combined savings offer and the latest in technology.

The Axon body-worn cameras, known as the Axon Body Camera 3, feature reduced motion blurring, enhanced low-light performance, livestream capabilities and four microphones for better audio.

Dover police officers are currently equipped with Axon’s X26P Taser, which will be beyond warranty by 2022.

The new Taser, model T7, is integrated with the body-worn cameras via a wireless connection. For example, the new Taser will automatically activate the body-worn camera upon deployment. The system will also automatically activate all officers’ body-worn cameras in tandem when they come together to respond to an incident.

The new Taser also features smart voltage technology, which is reported to supply just enough electricity to apprehend a subject.

“The technological advancements of this device help to ensure that no one (who is) subject to a Taser discharge, absent unusual circumstances, will receive any more electrical energy than is necessary to effect positive control,” Chief Johnson said. “It also helps to address issues facing special-needs people.
“This product is directly aligned with our empathy-based approach to policing, and our priority is rooted in de-escalation techniques.”

The Axon/Taser Officer Protection Plan that is being sought by the Dover Police Department will bring 70 new body-worn cameras, each with two sets of scheduled replacement cameras, for a total of 210. It will also bring 85 new T7 Tasers with replacement Tasers, along with device docking stations, cables, replacement batteries and unlimited renewal of training and duty Taser cartridges.

The plan will also provide a concurrent unlimited subscription to data storage via Evidence.com and all training-related necessities, including a full-body Taser training suit, instruction and online user training, a virtual reality training system, equipment and current/future software and vehicle hardware for data transfer and activation features.

“We looked at Axon for two reasons,” Chief Johnson said. “First, Axon was an existing vendor, as they provide the product line for our Taser program, and second, they were the next-lowest quote that we had on file from our summer search on dollars and cents.

“They enjoy a good preexisting reputation in the industry. We drove to a few police departments inside Delaware that use Axon and found satisfaction at every level, from the front-line officers to the senior staff members. The referrals indicate that the device will meet all of our requirements and expectations.”

Bodycams a welcome policing addition

Chelle Paul, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee for the NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches, gave her support for Dover’s interest in a body-worn camera program.

“I would like to give sincere thanks to all of our city councilmen and Chief Johnson for your ongoing efforts and consistency on making positive change for the city of Dover,” Ms. Paul said. “The body cameras will bring peace to the residents of Dover, as well as additional safeguards to law enforcement. Again, on behalf of the community and NAACP, thank you for moving forward with positive change.

“Councilman Taylor and Councilman Sudler, special thanks to you for speaking out when your community needed to hear your voices and be reassured.”

All members of the Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee agreed that such a program is needed, as well.

“This is definitely well-needed for the safety of our officers and the safety of the community, as well,” Councilman Gerald Rocha said.

Council President Bill Hare said, “This will improve officer safety, so I support it 100%.”

Andre Boggerty, who served as a member of the Police Chief’s Advisory Council, did have a suggestion for when Dover takes its body-worn camera program to the streets.

“I just want to reinforce the support for the body cameras,” Mr. Boggerty said. “According to the National Police Funding Database that is monitored by the Thurgood Marshall Institute website, one (misconduct) case could cost us more in settlement money than these devices and the services that we need to support the devices, so I think fiscally that it’s definitely within our wheelhouse and the city’s wheelhouse.

“I would like for police to offer a public service announcement to the city’s residents (before implementation) to show how the body camera program will work for both police officers and the citizens of the city.”

Chief Johnson didn’t brush off the idea.

“We’re going to be leaning in to as much transparency as I can deliver, as quickly as I can deliver it,” the chief said.

Hoping for more help

Chief Johnson and the city of Dover are optimistic that grants will become available to help offset some costs of the program.

However, Matt Harline, acting city manager, said the program needs to go forward regardless of its cost.

“We need to do this in fiscal year (2022), and there’s a path forward to do that,” Mr. Harline said. “There is a chance that we will need to enhance revenue, for this and other reasons.

“But those choices need to come together with the budget package and the understanding that this needs to be done for the reasons stated. We’ll figure out a way to get this in the budget. I’ve worked in different cities where they’ve had cameras, and it’s a valuable asset and a necessary tool.”