The Anchorage Police Department will move ahead with the long-awaited implementation of body-worn cameras without first resolving policy disputes that officials have blamed for delaying the technology’s rollout for more than a year.
That announcement by Chief of Police Michael Kerle at a briefing Thursday came a day after the Alaska Black Caucus filed a lawsuit against the city over repeated delays in implementing body-worn cameras.
Kerle declined to comment on the lawsuit and said his decision to roll out body cameras ahead of resolution on the policy was instead based on a new legal opinion from municipal attorneys. The police chief said he had already started planning Thursday’s policy change announcement on Monday, before the lawsuit was filed.
Kerle would not provide a timeline for when officers will start wearing the cameras.
The decision to move ahead with body-worn cameras marks a significant change in course for the police department. In previous statements, police officials had largely attributed the delay in progress to disagreement between the department and the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association over aspects of the policy, among other issues.
“We always thought that the policy and the implementation had to be concurrent,” Kerle said at the briefing. “I was informed by the municipal legal team that they are actually two separate things, that I can implement body-worn cameras while the arbitration is going on.”
The police department will now move forward with the latest version of the body-worn camera policy, although it is likely to change, Kerle said.
The police department initially planned to launch the body camera technology by the end of 2021, after voters approved a $1.8 million tax increase to fund the addition of body cameras and a critical overhaul of the department’s computer-aided dispatch and records management system.
While the timeline for the rollout remains unclear, the department has recommended a vendor for the equipment, and will now move through the city’s purchasing process, Kerle said.
“Once the body-worn cameras are purchased, we train our officers on them, we’ll implement them, and if the policy changes from our current policy, we’ll update the policy,” he said.
Kerle said the goal is to initially begin with 30 cameras, and to rapidly add more after the department ensures its digital evidence management system is ready.
“We’ve got to work out some bugs,” he said.
Series of delays
Officials announced last fall that the department and the union representing police officers would enter arbitration to resolve policy disagreements. A key point of contention has been whether officers should be able to review footage of situations when force is used before providing statements.
A decision had been anticipated by this fall.
But earlier this month, police and union officials announced postponement of arbitration on the policy, which had been scheduled to start this month, pushing it months out.
Kerle said the department then consulted with city attorneys and received the changed legal opinion that’s driving the new camera rollout process.
Pressure from advocates of body-worn cameras and Assembly members frustrated by the series of delays has increasingly mounted over the last year.
Body cameras are widely used in large police departments across the country and by several law enforcement agencies in Alaska.
The Alaska Black Caucus, a nonpartisan group advocating for the rights of Black Alaskans, said in its lawsuit that the city and department have “collectively thwarted the will of the voters,” and that the “excuses proffered to the public ... do not pass the straight-faced test and are contradicted by the actual facts which all Alaskans are aware of.”
The group’s president, Celeste Hodge-Growden, said Thursday that it will continue to move forward with the lawsuit.
“We’ve been here with the talk. That finish line keeps getting pushed back,” she said. “... We’re continuing to move forward until we actually see those body cameras.”
She questioned the sudden change and why the department didn’t decide more than a year ago to implement the cameras without agreement on the policy.
“That’s great that they have this announcement, but we just want action. So what are the timelines?” she said, indicating frustration that Kerle wouldn’t provide an estimate of when body-worn cameras will be in use.
“All we want is the transparency and accountability. Why can’t we get that?” she said.
The police department wants body-worn cameras, Kerle said.
“We have made a recommendation for the vendor. And it’s coming, it’s coming,” Kerle said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
When the cameras will be put into use depends on the remaining purchasing process, police spokeswoman Sunny Guerin said Thursday.
As soon as the purchasing department completes its process, the police department will be able to begin contract negotiations with the vendor, she said. The department will have more information to share once the contract is in place, she said.
The goal is to send the contract to the Anchorage Assembly for approval as soon as possible, she said.
Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant said he’s encouraged by the announcement.
“I’m just really glad to hear APD is taking a step forward in a project that’s going to bring this long community conversation to a close and start a new chapter in which we’ve implemented the body-worn cameras, just like the voters decided,” Constant said.
The Anchorage Police Department also released a new version of its policy alongside Kerle’s announcement. The policy is a “living document,” Kerle said.
A previous version has been heavily criticized for not allowing automatic release of footage for police shootings and requiring members of the public to make a records request, an often lengthy and expensive process.
The updated policy includes an additional section that specifies when recordings can be made public.
Footage associated with open investigations or active court proceedings won’t be released. Private citizens are still required to make public records requests to view footage. However, the police chief can choose to “proactively” release recordings related to matters of public interest — police shootings or “other critical incidents” — after interviews of officers, witnesses and victims are finished, according to the policy.
Another change expands language on the ability of supervisors or others designated by the police chief to periodically review footage from dashboard and body cameras.
“We believe that our supervisors should have the ability to use that video in the best way possible, to be able to to train our officers, to look at quality of contact, to provide their services to the public,” Deputy Chief Sean Case said.
APDEA President Sgt. Darrell Evans did not return a call from the Daily News on Thursday, and instead sent a statement from the union in a text message:
“Getting the body-worn camera program up and running is as important to the APDEA as it is to the MOA and the community. Our members want body-worn cameras; they will show the amazing work our officers do daily to keep our families, friends, and neighbors safe. We will continue to work with the Anchorage Police Department to ensure that the body-worn camera policy meets the needs of our officers and the community,” Evans said.