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St. Charles County takes cautious approach to police body cameras

Body-cameraThe new St. Charles County Police Department is taking a slow, cautious approach to equipping its officers with body cameras, even though money is available in the 2015 budget to buy them.

County Executive Steve Ehlmann told the County Council at its Dec. 15 meeting that the county won’t allocate the money in the 2015 budget for the cameras until a range of legal, privacy and protocol questions are addressed.

Ehlmann said he’s hoping that the Missouri General Assembly can make changes needed in the state’s open meeting law during its next legislative session, which began Jan. 7.

Ehlmann made the comments after Councilman Joe Brazil (District 2) asked that $323,000 for the cameras and their storage be pulled out of the upcoming budget. The county’s new budget year began Jan. 1.

Although the council did not agree to pull the funds for the cameras out of the budget, Ehlmann did agreed with many of Brazil’s concerns.

“I think these things are too new,” Brazil said. “I think a lot of problems will come from (them).”

Brazil said there are a number of privacy issues that need to be addressed. He also said the cameras may limit an officer’s ability to use discretion in dealing with individual situations

“I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to Ferguson,” Brazil said. “I don’t like the fact that the (U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder Justice Department is coming up with mandates.”

Brazil questioned whether the amount of money the county has paid out in lawsuits exceeds what the county would have to pay for the cameras.

“We’re hiring police officers based on their training, their integrity and wherewithal, and we’re going to put cameras on them because we don’t trust them or we don’t trust the public,” Brazil said. “Maybe public officials should have cameras.”

Ehlmann, however, countered that the county had been considering the cameras long before the unrest in Ferguson. In 2013, the county allocated $63,000 as part of its 2014 budget for the cameras but never spent it.

Ehlmann agreed that Brazil had legitimate questions about privacy and proper procedures and protocol for officers, but he asked the council to include the money in the budget.

“If you take it out of the budget it pretty much ends the discussion tonight so I would ask you keep it in,” Ehlmann said.

Joann Leykam, the county’s director of administration, said the county charter limits the ability of the county to allocate funding if it is not included in the budget.

Ehlmann said he would ask the council’s approval before buying the cameras.

“If you leave it in there, and I hope you do, you have the final say if we purchase those things,” he said. “If we don’t come up with answers to your questions, we’re not going to bring it (the camera purchase) to you.”

The county Sheriff’s Department turned over most of its law enforcement duties to the new county police department on Jan. 1.

Only one other police department in the county, Wentzville, currently uses body cameras; however the St. Charles City Council on Jan. 6 voted 7-3 to contract with Taser International to provide the 90 cameras and five years of “cloud” storage at a cost of $424,437. Several other municipal departments also are considering the cameras.

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