The Anchorage Police Department’s long-awaited implementation of body-worn cameras faces yet another potential delay after police and union officials this week announced the postponement of arbitration scheduled to start this month.
The department originally planned to launch the body camera technology funded by a 2021 voter-approved $1.8 million tax increase by the end of that year.
Instead, the camera rollout has been delayed by numerous issues, including disagreement between the department and the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association over aspects of the policy. A main point of contention is whether officers should be able to review footage of situations where force was used before providing statements.
The policy disputes have delayed progress on the cameras for more than a year. Officials announced last fall that they were going to enter arbitration, which would bring in a neutral third party to settle the dispute. The move came after growing pressure from advocates frustrated by the delays, which have triggered mounting backlash during the last year.
Word of the postponed arbitration first surfaced Wednesday at the monthly meeting of the municipal Public Safety Committee. Police Chief Michael Kerle and Deputy Chief Sean Case said only that arbitration scheduled for April had been pushed back to the fall, without elaborating on why.
Darrell Evans, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, said in an interview Thursday that both sides agreed to postpone the arbitration in hopes of resolving the policy disputes themselves without the involvement of a third party “that doesn’t live in Anchorage and isn’t going to be affected by this policy.”
Assembly members and advocates voiced frustration during Wednesday’s meeting. Assembly member Felix Rivera described having a “visceral reaction” when he heard about the delay.
It wasn’t immediately clear what the change means for when the body cameras will be rolled out. A decision was expected this fall, had arbitration gone forward as originally planned. Now, if the department and union can’t resolve their issues, arbitration will start at some unspecified time this fall, with a decision not expected until months later.
Evans said he and Case, the deputy chief, are “constantly in conversation” though there are no set meeting times to discuss the disputed policy areas.
“The negotiations are ongoing even though the arbitration has been postponed,” he said.
Case told Assembly members during the Wednesday meeting that arbitration was being pushed back because of “an additional issue that came up in negotiations. And both parties agreed that that additional complication with the policy that came up required more preparation time and potentially even a longer arbitration period.”
“I do apologize that we haven’t been able to decide,” he said. “I figured we would come to a resolution before we even went into arbitration. I was hopeful, but that’s not happening right now. So late fall is when arbitration is gonna be set for now.”
Case did not provide specifics about what the issue was. When Evans was asked Thursday about what new issue had come up, he said the disagreements were “more of the same” but provided no specific details.
Department spokeswoman Renee Oistad said Wednesday that the department has “no additional information to give” and cited the ongoing arbitration procedure when asked if Kerle or Case were available for an interview.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Assembly member Kevin Cross, who represents Eagle River and is a co-chair of the Public Safety Committee, said the situation seemed to be “a hamster wheel with no end” that may require more involvement from an Assembly that’s so far taken a hands-off stance.
“My anticipation is that given this most recent information, they’re probably going to take a more proactive role with some sort of resolution or an executive session to figure out why it doesn’t seem to be progressing,” Cross said.
The technology is commonplace in a majority of large police departments across the country, many of which have turned to body cameras to increase public trust and improve transparency and accountability.
Along with the voter-approved tax increase that also funded upgrades to the department’s computer-aided dispatch and record management systems, an additional $250,000 was allocated to the department by the Assembly and APD was awarded $890,000 in federal funds specifically for body camera implementation.
Former Police Chief Kenneth McCoy brought forward several drafts of the policy in 2021 and asked for public feedback. The draft stalled amid concerns from the city’s law department about how the policy would interact with standing privacy statutes.
Kerle said in early 2022 that the department no longer had a timeline for when officers would wear body cameras. He also said he planned to roll out the program on a limited basis, potentially outfitting only five or six officers per shift with the technology.
Officials have not provided details about how the limited rollout will work, including how long it would take to have all officers equipped with body cameras or how they will select the first groups of officers. Oistad said Thursday the plan has not been finalized.
The department has not yet selected a vendor to purchase the body cameras from, but Kerle said Wednesday that a decision will be reached by next week.
The three vendors who submitted proposals to the department met with officials in March, Kerle said. A final assessment will be submitted to the municipal purchasing department by the end of next week to start the contracting process, he said. Officials did not say how long that process will take.
Once the body camera contracting is finished, Kerle said, officers will “start training on them in hopes that the policy will eventually get approved and we can put them on the streets.”