After years of discussion, police officers in Vancouver will soon be outfitted with body cameras while on patrol.
The move is meant to foster transparency and greater trust in the Vancouver Police Department’s investigations and day-to-day policing. Local civil rights groups, who have long called for the cameras, are optimistic.
“This kind of seems like a long path to get to just the beginning for us, because we’re just at the start of this project. But we have arrived here,” Assistant Police Chief Troy Price said Monday evening. “We envision that this is bringing us up to the standard we should have been at a while ago.”
Vancouver police officials say body cameras will be deployed within the next three months. Spokesperson Kim Kapp couldn’t say Tuesday how the agency plans to roll out the technology among its 213 sworn staff.
The move comes after Vancouver City Council on Monday approved a $5.5 million contract with Axon Enterprises, Inc. The Arizona-based vendor sells TASER-brand weapons, cameras and records management software.
The contract calls for more than 200 body-worn cameras, more than 200 new Tasers, cameras for patrol car dashboards and cabins, automatic license plate readers on patrol cars and new cameras in the agency’s interview rooms. The deal throws in things like new Taser targets and nine HTC-brand virtual reality headsets, which retail on the company’s website for more than $1,000 each.
The city’s contract pays for software and training services from Axon, as well. The company provides data storage for the vast amounts of footage and pictures that will be recorded through the body cameras and license plate readers. The contract also includes vouchers for classes on using the new Tasers.
The body cameras remain the marquee item. Public calls for the devices date back as far back as 2019 when Vancouver police opened fire on people four times in a five-week span.
Three people died in those shootings. Two — 43-year-old Carlos Hunter and 16-year-old Clayton Joseph — were people of color. The third, 29-year-old Michael Pierce, was homeless and believed to be in the middle of a mental health crisis.
Since then, Vancouver police have used deadly force at least four times.
“While the process took longer than expected ... we’re glad it was finally adopted,” said Jasmine Tolbert, president of the NAACP’s Vancouver branch.
During the same meeting Monday night, Vancouver councilors agreed to pay $725,000 to the family of William Abbe. Three officers shot and killed the 50-year-old while investigating him for an assault. A bystander recorded the encounter, which factored heavily into the wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family more than a year later.
Vancouver’s adoption of police body cameras — while not the first in Clark County — is significant because it is the largest police agency in Southwest Washington, and could serve as a roadmap for smaller police agencies, according to local officials.
“The most important part is that it would be nice if all (law enforcement agencies) in Clark County were operating with the same system,” said Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office does not yet have body cameras. Atkins said the agency tested a vendor in 2021 but has been trying to sort out funding.
Local voters in August passed a fractional sales tax for public safety. The county is expected to net about $7 million from the tax, while cities will split about $4.8 million based on population size. The county hasn’t finalized its spending plans yet, Atkins said.
“The money won’t hit until March. This close to the election, nothing is really going to be finalized,” Atkins said, referencing the November general election.
The Camas Police Department struck its own deal with Axon late last year and debuted its camera program in March. No other agency in Clark County has rolled out a body camera program.
The Washougal Police Department has tested two vendors this year and hopes to pursue funding next year. Officials at the Ridgefield Police Department said body cameras are “on their radar.”
Still, local leaders have been quick to remind the public that body cameras are not going to solve everything. Vancouver City Councilor Ty Stober called the cameras “truly exciting,” but cautioned that “they are not truth.”
“I think there’s a lot of people who think they will be truth,” Stober said. “They are a point of data that will help us as we serve the public.”
Tolbert, the NAACP Vancouver president, said she and other civil rights groups plan to watch carefully how footage is used.
Kapp, the Vancouver police spokesperson, told OPB that the agency already has some policies in place around the new program. She added that the policies are being revised and an updated policy will be implemented before the cameras are rolled out.