Vancouver will spend $5.5 million on body cameras and other gadgets

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After years of discussions, Vancouver police officers will soon be equipped with body cameras during their patrols.

The move is intended to foster transparency and greater confidence in the Vancouver Police Department’s investigations and day-to-day policing. Local civil rights groups, which have long called for the cameras, are optimistic.

“It seems like a long way to get to the beginning for us, because we are only at the beginning of this project. But we got here,” Deputy Police Chief Troy Price said Monday night. “We envision this taking us to where we should have been a while ago.”

Vancouver City Hall

Molly Solomon/OPB

Vancouver police officials say body cameras will be deployed over the next three months. Spokesperson Kim Kapp could not say on Tuesday how the agency plans to roll out the technology among its 213 sworn employees.

The move comes after Vancouver City Council on Monday approved a $5.5 million contract with Axon Enterprises, Inc. The Arizona-based supplier sells TASER-branded weapons, cameras and records management software.

The contract includes more than 200 body-worn cameras, more than 200 new Tasers, cameras for the dashboards and cabins of patrol cars, automatic license plate readers on patrol cars and new cameras in the maintenance rooms of the agency. The deal includes things like new Taser targets and nine HTC-branded virtual reality headsets, which sell on the company’s website for more than $1,000 each.

The city contract also pays for Axon software and training services. The company provides data storage for the large amounts of footage and images that will be recorded by body cameras and license plate readers. The contract also includes vouchers for classes on how to use the new Tasers.

The body cameras remain the key element. Public calls for the devices date back to 2019 when Vancouver police opened fire on people four times in five weeks.

Three people died in these shootings. Two – Carlos Hunter, 43, and Clayton Joseph, 16 – were people of color. The third, 29-year-old Michael Pierce, was homeless and believed to be in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Since then, Vancouver police have used lethal force at least four times.

“Although the process has taken longer than expected…we are pleased that it has finally passed,” said Jasmine Tolbert, president of the Vancouver branch of the NAACP.

During the same meeting Monday night, Vancouver councilors agreed to pay William Abbe’s family $725,000. Three officers shot and killed the 50-year-old as they investigated him for an assault. A bystander recorded the encounter, which largely contributed to 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 department in southwest Washington and could serve as a leaf road for smaller police departments, according to local officials.

“The most important part is that it would be nice if all (law enforcement agencies) in Clark County operated with the same system,” Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office does not yet have body cameras. Atkins said the agency tested a vendor in 2021 but tried to find funding.

Local voters passed a fractional sales tax for public safety in August. The county is expected to take about $7 million from the tax, while cities will split about $4.8 million based on population size. The county has yet to finalize its spending plans, Atkins said.

“The money will only arrive in March. This close to the election, nothing will really be finalized,” Atkins said, referring to the general election in November.

The Camas Police Department struck its own deal with Axon late last year and launched its camera program in March. No other Clark County agency has implemented a body camera program.

The Washougal Police Department tested two vendors this year and hopes to secure funding next year. Ridgefield Police Department officials said body cameras were “on their radar.”

Still, local leaders were quick to remind the public that body cameras won’t solve everything. Vancouver City Councilor Ty Stober called the cameras “really exciting” but warned that “they’re not the truth”.

“I think there are a lot of people who think they’ll be the truth,” Stober said. “They are a data point that will help us as we serve the public.”

Tolbert, the president of the Vancouver NAACP, said she and other civil rights groups plan to carefully monitor the use of the images.

Kapp, the Vancouver police spokesperson, told the OPB that the agency already has some policies in place regarding the new program. She added that the policies are being reviewed and an updated policy will be implemented before the cameras are deployed.

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