Why I support police reform but voted against pre-paying for body cameras

Street Racers at the Des Moines Creek Business Park, December 2020
Street Racers at the Des Moines Creek Business Park, December 2020

As I’ve written and testified, I am a strong advocate of police reform. I was the lone vote against the motion so I figured I should explain a bit. And I want to stipulate that body cameras will likely be in all Cities (including Des Moines) at some point.

Point by point

Let’s begin by pointing out that going into the meeting there was no vote planned. So let me acknowledge the City Manager for asking for a motion rather than simply giving the presentation and then acting unilaterally. Here is a link to the presentation.

Crime is increasing

As hinted at on page 5, crime has been on the increase in the two years before COVID-19 and is expected to continue increasing. We’ve heard in the media about a downward trend in crime over the past decades, but in many categories here in Des Moines that is simply no longer true.

Misdirection

Lest we forget, the whole discussion re. body cameras first came up as a response to calls to address systemic racism in policing, specifically the killing of George Floyd. ‘Racism’ and ‘accountability’ were the defining terms in the whole discussion. And yet at last night’s presentation neither the words racism or accountability were mentioned.  It feels to me like the whole discussion has shifted towards being a symbolic gesture–something we cannot afford right now.

During the presentation, we learned that there have been almost no complaints about Des Moines Police Officers in recent years. So I struggle to understand the urgency of this project.

Not the best use of funds

The police are beginning a beta-test with only two units. Yet back in July the City Manager set aside $140,000 (the cost of the entire system). In a time of serious budget shortfalls, we are essentially pre-paying for something we may not use at all until the end of 2021. That $140,000 could instead be used to fund another officer and a part time civilian position. Right now. That is no symbolic gesture. Hiring new officers would provide an immediate benefit to our community in terms of crime prevention and reduction.

Many bugs yet to work out

The presentation (and prior Public Safety Committee presentation) specifically mentioned that there are still significant challenges to implementing body cameras, both technical and legal (including privacy and little details like when officers get to turn them on and off!) I believe that we should let other communities work out these bugs before we invest heavily. Again, not while there is no local data supporting an immediate need.

The Police did not request this

And then there is something you would have to have attended prior Public Safety and Police Advisory Meetings to learn: the Police Guild (the officers) have not asked for body cameras. The police union representatives have taken great pains to word their reaction like this, “We do not oppose body cameras.” That’s it. They do not say, we need body cameras to do our job. The Chief has also made it clear that this is not about improving law enforcement or addressing documented concerns about accountability or racism.

Summary

I support a beta-test of two cameras. But I do not support funding the entire program in advance, using money that could and should be used now to fight and prevent increased crime. I believe that is what the overwhelming majority of  you, the voters really want. Especially when there is no true evidence of need and no actual desire coming from the PD itself.

When there is a generally accepted best-practice in place for Cities like Des Moines, I will support it, along with other, the far more impactful means of combatting racism and improving accountability that I have previously written about.

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