Missed deadlines. Three years’ worth.
After countless public pledges to equip the Metro Nashville Police Department with body cameras, officers still aren’t wearing them. In the meantime, there have been two high-profile police shootings, further fueling calls for increased transparency in law enforcement.
And just as the police department was gearing up to place its order with a camera manufacturer last week, Mayor John Cooper decided to pump the breaks. Another deadline missed.
This story unofficially begins on October 30, 2016. Mayor Megan Barry stands at the pulpit of Temple Church in North Nashville, before more than 1,700 faith leaders, activists and local politicians. She makes a promise.
“What we will do, Chief Anderson and I, we will be in a position to recommend full funding for all police officers to have body cameras when we present next year’s budget to the Metro Council,” she says. The sanctuary erupts in applause.
The announcement comes just days after grassroots organization Gideon’s Army releases the Driving While Black report, which found that Metro Police were stopping black drivers at alarming rates. Barry vows to take action.
“If we are doing something wrong, then I will fix it,” she says. More applause.
From that moment on, Barry’s administration seems to be moving full steam ahead.
She convenes a task force to study body cameras, chockfull of leading voices in the criminal justice sector: the DA, the public defender, the police chief, community organizers. They research programs across the country and draft an eight-page policy on how the technology should be used.
At the group’s first meeting, Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson says he hopes to get the project off the ground sooner rather than later.
“I’m looking forward to the final result, to a successful implementation,” he says. “If I could wave a magic wand and it would be done successfully tomorrow — if I had that power, I would.”
But even then, activist Clemmie Greenlee wonders whether the city is really ready for body cameras.
“I want to make sure that we be assured that we won’t be sitting here this time next year talking about the same one object – the body camera,” she says, tapping her fingers on the table for emphasis.
Higher Price Tags, Little Movement
Flash forward three years and two mayors later. The group’s policy has been scrapped, and — besides pilot testing — the police department has yet to equip a single officer with a body camera.
Some top officials say Barry made a hasty promise that would prove too expensive to keep, one that fell to the wayside after power changed hands.
Just last week, Mayor Cooper announced he was putting the purchase of body cameras on hold — again. The state Comptroller had just blasted the Metro Council for irresponsible budget practices. His offices decided to get its finances in line first, before making such a major expenditure.
In fact, local leaders have seldom criticized the idea of body cameras outright. But they have been eager to remind the public just how much money is at stake.
“Our only concern is the cost to the city, how it may impact our members,” says James Smallwood, president of the Andrew Jackson Lodge Fraternal Order of Police.
“When you’re talking about millions of dollars going into a program to record what our officers are doing, that’s fine. But we also have pay, benefits and working conditions that need to be taken into consideration for our members. And we don’t think one should affect the other.”
And over the years, the estimates have only continued to grow.
Here’s an interactive timeline of the city’s body camera project:
A Brief History
Let’s rewind to March of 2017. Jocques Clemmons has just been killed after a traffic stop, and activists are demanding police reform. They want interactions between officers and civilians caught on camera.
But at a budget hearing, Chief Anderson says there’s no room for shortcuts.
There’s the price of each individual camera. And the cost to store the thousands of hours of video they’ll capture each day. Plus, salaries for new employees who will review all that footage before it’s released to the public or used at trial.
“I’ve never made a request during my tenure for any funding that any way approaches that,” he says. “But we’ve never taken on something as complicated and expensive as this camera project.”
And it’s not just Metro Police. The district attorney, the public defender and the criminal court clerk will also be saddled with additional expenses.
But all budget requests have to be approved by the Metro Council. That year and the next, the police department only gets a fraction of the funding it’s asked for. The other agencies get nothing.
Then Daniel Hambrick is killed, after another traffic stop gone wrong. The city votes to create a police oversight board. Officers start pilot testing different types of cameras.
And finally, in August of this year, former Mayor David Briley announces the city’s signed a contract with a camera vendor. He says rollout could start as early as September.
Then, another bump in the road.
District Attorney Glenn Funk brings in a team of consultants he’s hired to estimate the collateral cost of body cameras on the city’s various criminal justice institutions.
At a meeting last month, Funk says the city needs to think through the ripple effect.
“If we underfund, then we create delays in a criminal justice system, and victims and defendants have their right to justice delayed. We put victims and witnesses at risk if we underfund this system,” he says, adding, “We will appear to less transparent if we underfund this system.”
‘It Needs To Be A Priority’
But former public defender Dawn Deaner thinks the steep cost of body cameras is often used as a delaying tactic.
“If people in power really wanted this to happen, then there wouldn’t be a whole lot of question, I don’t think, about cost of it. We wouldn’t be talking about that. We would just be doing it,” she says. “The fact that there is so much conversation around the cost of body cameras, to me, says that there’s still a lot of people in positions of power who may not want this to be happening.”
Marcus Floyd says he’s frustrated by the sluggish rate of progress. He served as public safety adviser in Briley’s administration.
“It needs to be a priority of the mayor’s office, it needs to be a priority of every elected official in the criminal justice system here in Nashville,” he says.
Floyd says he struggled to push body cameras to the top of the agenda. Every time the project came close to fruition, he says, a new expense seemed to derail it. He knows the body cameras are expensive but thinks they’re a worthwhile investment.
“If we want every community in Nashville to feel safe, to feel heard, to have trust and respect for law enforcement and for the system of justice that we have in place, then it’s not too much to ask,” he says.
“It can’t be a priority because there’s another black body on the streets. That’s too far. We need to make sure body cameras are deployed before there’s another life lost in this city.”
The mayor’s office has now set another deadline: It says it hopes to have a funding plan in place by the end of this year.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.