‘Everyone knows it’s coming’: Body camera debate resurfaces for Burbank

An officer with the Newark Police Department wears a body camera during a media event on April 26, 2017, in Newark, N.J.
(Julio Cortez / AP)

With body-camera footage becoming increasingly vital nationwide in cases relating to officer-involved incidents, it’s only a matter of time before the Burbank Police Department is outfitted with the technology.

Hoping to get ahead of the curve, department officials are drafting a policy to have in place when the body-worn cameras are put into use. During a Burbank Police Commission meeting last Wednesday, Deputy Chief Mike Albanese said the department has a 60-day window to complete a policy and present it to the city manager’s office.

“Our goal is to draft a policy that will be the industry standard for other organizations to come to us to have that best policy,” he said.

Albanese said the department has been in contact with other agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, for information about their camera policies. The Burbank Police Officers’ Assn., police commission and a civilian oversight organization will be brought in to provide feedback about the new policy, he said.

It’s unknown when the department would start using body-worn cameras.

During the commission meeting, Albanese said it’s inevitable that officers will be wearing them.

“Everyone knows it’s coming,” he said. “Whether it’s going to be mandated legislatively or from an officer-safety component, risk management component, all of those considerations … It’s going to happen.”

As of now, Burbank officers have been using digital-audio recorders since 2012.

The biggest roadblock in adopting the cameras has been their cost — from purchasing and maintaining the equipment to storing the recordings.

In 2015, the department considered purchasing cameras, but a proposal was shot down by the City Council. The roughly $570,000 price tag to purchase the cameras was too high for a still-developing technology, council members said at the time.

It would also cost the city nearly $2 million over five years for maintenance and storage.

In the years since, the high price hasn’t changed.

Earlier this month, the City Council held a meeting on its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. With Burbank facing a projected $1-million deficit and the possibility of eliminating some firefighter positions, the topic of body-worn cameras came up.

Police Chief Scott LaChasse brought up the possibility of the city earmarking $586,000 to purchase the cameras in the future.

While money can be found in the upcoming budget for the cameras, it has not yet been figured out how the city would pay for the recurring costs to maintain the equipment.

According to Albanese, the cameras are currently in the “unfunded-needs list” for the city.

The Burbank Police Officers’ Assn. has come out against the chief’s proposal.

In an open letter dated May 12, Jay Hawver, union president, said “it did not make any sense” for LaChasse to make such a large request in the face of a deficit.

Hawver, a lieutenant in the department, said during a commission meeting on May 9 was also the first time the police union had learned of the request. He said the department is overlooking understaffing issues in favor of the cameras.

“There is no identifiable need for the cameras, zero public demand for them, and no substantive justification for this expense has ever been articulated,” he said.

Despite the high price, LaChasse said during the City Council meeting that the cameras would help provide better evidence that would be needed in certain situations, such as officer-involved shootings. The chief also said it would help make for a more transparent organization, and departments that have been using the cameras have seen a reduction in complaints against officers.

“It’s not just a nice-to-have item. What we’re finding is that people need them,” he said. “It’s part of the transparency. It’s part of the openness. It’s a part of accountability right now.”

Twitter: @Andy_Truc