Crime & Courts

‘Ignoring the will of voters’: Groups demand progress on body cameras for Anchorage police

Alaska civil rights organizations are demanding action on long-delayed body cameras for Anchorage police officers, a voter-approved priority that still lacks an official start date.

Anchorage residents approved the technology during an April 2021 election with the expectation that police would likely be wearing cameras by the end of 2021. But roughly 16 months after voters signed off on their use, the cameras have not materialized — and there is no timeline for implementation.

A new Anchorage Police Department body camera policy is also still tied up in ongoing negotiations with the union representing about 370 officers.

The delays are unnecessary and show that “the municipality and the APD are effectively ignoring the will of voters,” said a letter signed by leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union, Alaska Black Caucus, NAACP and civil rights law firm Northern Justice Project.

The letter was sent last week to Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle, Mayor Dave Bronson and Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance.

The organizations could take legal action if the department doesn’t release a timeline or make immediate progress toward equipping officers with cameras, said Rich Curtner, an Anchorage attorney and co-chair of the Black Caucus Justice Committee.

Curtner said attorneys are considering filing a petition in state court that could require the department to follow through on their obligations to install cameras as soon as possible.

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“It’s a simple ask for a timeline and I think litigation is always the last resort,” he said. “That’s why we wrote the letter, to hope that they would respond and communicate with the public again and give the public something, some kind of information and some expectation of when we will actually have body cameras.”

The last public meeting called specifically to discuss body cameras took place in February.

The groups had not received a response as of Wednesday, Curtner said.

Support for concept, concerns over policy

The issue surfaced during Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting when LaFrance cited the lack of progress on body cameras as one of several matters that she claims have engendered mistrust and skepticism of Mayor Bronson’s administration. Other issues she cited include the city’s human resources director; the resignation of the Anchorage Health Department director; and the ongoing lack of a library director.

A spokesman for the mayor on Monday referred any Daily News questions about body cameras to the police department.

Municipal officials initially proposed the use of cameras during a time of renewed public interest following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Body cameras are commonplace in a majority of large police departments across the country.

Municipal, police and union leadership in Anchorage support the technology, viewed as a way police can improve accountability and transparency.

Former APD Chief Ken McCoy held several sessions to gather public input. Early drafts of the policy stalled over concerns from municipal attorneys about potential conflicts with privacy statutes.

The policy Kerle finalized in March was met with criticism. The department will not automatically release footage from police shootings or other use of force incidents. Instead, members of the public have to make a records request — a lengthy and expensive process.

[Family: Anchorage police didn’t listen to witness account leading up to discovery of Buckland man’s body]

Camera vendor still unknown

Last year, Anchorage voters agreed to pay roughly $1.84 million a year in property taxes — a cost to property owners of about $5.32 per $100,000 of assessed value — to pay for body cameras and update technology.

But the department only collected $1.5 million in taxes during the project’s first year instead of the full amount, police spokeswoman Renee Oistad said. The reason wasn’t immediately clear.

As of this week, APD had spent about a third of that to replace computer-aided dispatch and record systems, changes that needed to happen before the cameras could go into use, Oistad said by email.

The rest of the taxpayer funds are tied up in a $4.4 million contract with a software company, Hexagon, that will cover implementation, maintenance and support services for five years, she said. The contract went out for bid in December 2020 and was signed in March. Work on the project started in late June.

The process of selecting a company to actually put body cameras on officers has yet to begin.

The department is still working on the initial bidding process before selecting a vendor to provide the equipment and services needed to implement the cameras, Oistad said.

The department is required to accept proposals for at least 14 days. Oistad did not answer questions about a timeline for signing a vendor contract. It took 15 months to sign a contract for the other technology upgrades and another three months for the project to start.

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Limited rollout

Police Chief Kerle previously stated he intended to roll out the program on a limited basis, potentially outfitting only five or six officers per shift with the technology.

The public approved the tax increase with the idea that every officer would be equipped with body cameras by now, Curtner said.

Voters expected to have every officer equipped with cameras months ago, he said. “Even if it’s a pilot program — is that going to be a two-year program, a one-year program, a two-week program?”

The limited rollout is based upon the need for upgrades within the city and state law departments, Kerle has previously said. The departments currently lack the technological capability and staffing needed to process the drastic increase in evidence body camera footage would create, he said.

[Anchorage police chief says department will reevaluate its policy on officers carrying Narcan]

Much of the delay in outfitting officers with cameras stems from an ongoing debate over policies determining when officers must turn on cameras and how the department releases footage, especially following shootings or use of force.

No timeline for resolution, union says

The Anchorage Police Department Employees Association is currently in the midst of negotiations with the department over the new body camera policy.

The union mainly takes issue with a section that doesn’t allow officers to review footage prior to an interview with a detective, according to association president Jeremy Conkling. He believes such footage could help officers recall details of an intense or traumatic encounter.

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Conkling also said months passed between the policy’s adoption in March and discussions with the union that began in June. A third meeting was scheduled for Wednesday.

The meetings have been productive, he said, but there’s no timeline for any resolution. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, they will enter arbitration. It’s not clear how long that could take.

The civil rights organizations asked in the letter for the municipality to initiate arbitration if there is no agreement before Sept. 15.

The date represents a clear deadline and timeframe for the process to move forward, Curtner said.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this story.

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Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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