Vancouver residents have been calling for police to wear body cameras for a year and a half, and city leaders appeared ready to make a budget decision this fall.
But now that budget planning is in full swing, city leaders have put the brakes on the technology.
Body cameras are not included in Vancouver’s two-year, $1.3 billion budget proposal that city officials will spend the next month deliberating. The absence surprised some members of a new task force, created in June and charged with helping devise the eventual use of the devices.
Until recently, those members of the Vancouver Community Advisory Task Force on Policing didn’t know why city administration excluded body cameras on the budget proposal. They were concerned in part due to recent, renewed tensions around Vancouver policing.
“I don’t believe body cameras should be put on hold,” said Kim Schneiderman, a task force member and the executive director of the southwest Washington offices of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Schneiderman made the statements to OPB days after a review cleared three Vancouver officers who shot and killed a homeless man in April, days after the city’s budget was published, and hours before the task force’s latest meeting on Tuesday.
“It’s a necessary part of overseeing what people are doing,” she said. “My opinion is it just needs to happen. … I’m pushing and I’m sure others will be, too, to get them up and running as fast as possible.”
Concerns then surfaced at the meeting, which was not open to the public. According to people who attended, the question was raised: Why was there no line item for body cameras in the budget?
Vancouver city manager Eric Holmes reportedly assured the task force the absence of body cameras doesn’t prevent adding them back at a later date — when staff have a better idea of the cost and how the program will be paid for.
Separately, Holmes wrote in his 550-page budget proposal that the city needs to “engage” with the community and other law enforcement agencies in the community, as well as the police union.
“Because the scope of a program is not yet identified, the city is not yet able to engage with our labor groups to bargain the mandatory aspects of such a program,” Holmes wrote.
“Once there is more clarity from our engagement with the community at large and the law enforcement community, as well as identification of how such a program would be funded, the budget can be supplemented by the Council,” he added.
As it is nationwide, police oversight is a fraught issue in Vancouver.
In 2019, officers with the Vancouver Police Department shot four people — three fatally — in a four-week span. Two killed were people of color, a third was experiencing homelessness. Civil rights groups demanded answers, but said their efforts were met with inaction by the city.
In June, an external report found Vancouver police’s use of force rose by 65% from 2017 to 2019. The report couldn’t point to any specific policy changes as reason for the significant uptick.
The report called for more than 80 recommendations and led to the creation of the 14-member task force. The task force is charged with reviewing the report’s recommendations and assuring transparency.
The task force is also charged to “advise the city on establishing a body-worn camera program for implementation” in the upcoming, two-year budget.
Tuesday night, Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the local League of United Latin American Citizens, said he and others on the task force sought to make clear why body cameras should remain a city goal.
“Trust is the name of the game,” Hamilton Rosales recalled saying. “When you’re trying to build trust within the Latino community, and other people of color, it’s hard to do that when you’re not transparent with this particular line item.”
The city of Vancouver has an idea of the price tag attached to body cameras: $1.5 million annually.
That may pay for 175 body cameras, 90 in-car cameras, and extra staff to manage the program and handle record-keeping, according to a city spokesperson. The Vancouver Police Department researched the costs in late 2019.
To Hamilton Rosales, Tuesday’s meeting did not make clear what needs to occur for body cameras to warrant being included in the city’s plans to spend $479 million from its general fund over the next two years. He said he left the meeting nonplussed.
“If you knew how much it’s going to cost, why wasn’t it included in the budget?” he asked.
Sarah Fox, a first-term city councilor on the task force, said recent shootings have added a sense of urgency to address the report’s recommendations and devise a body camera plan. She also said she understood more discussion needs to happen.
“There’s a lot to be decided on what a body-worn camera program could be,” she said.
Body cameras had appeared on a trajectory to make the upcoming budget, even as COVID-19 shook city finances.
At a budget workshop in July, councilors directed staff to plan for the technology. Holmes also told OPB in July the city is “moving forward with crafting a body-worn camera program for VPD, which will be presented to City Council this fall in the context of the 2021-2022 budget.”
“We anticipate this program to be part of the conversation with a community task force on policing over the summer and into the fall,” he added.
When OPB asked last week why the timeline for body cameras appears to be getting pushed, a spokesperson quoted Holmes' budget proposal about needing to “engage” the community and labor groups.
Erik Paulsen, another councilor on the task force, said that while body cameras are a priority, so are examining the dozens of recommendations from the report about Vancouver police’s rising use of force.
“It might well be that if we go through the recommendations of the report, that we talk about some other aspirational changes of policing more broadly, and that other priorities emerge that supersede body-worn cameras,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the devices are off the table, he noted.
“Once we affirm that the community is 100% on board with this, I’m confident Council will find a way to fund it,” Paulsen said.
Another factor at play is coordinating with other law enforcement agencies outside of Vancouver. Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy chairs the county’s Law and Justice Council with regional law enforcement representatives. He said agencies are open to cameras and want to approach the technology uniformly.
“They’re hoping for unanimity in the hardware and the software, to see if we can have some efficiency in costs and training and standardized operating procedures,” Medvigy said. “There’s some big, moving pieces.”
By Wednesday, task force members said the meeting went well, even though the prospect of body cameras appears hazy again.
Hamilton Rosales said he felt the task force at large appreciated the discussion about the budget. Schneiderman, who said prior to the meeting she wanted to push for body cameras, said she now has a lot to digest.
“I don’t think there’s a clear answer,” Schneiderman said.