SUNDAY EDITION | Indiana law prompts Southern Indiana police to rethink body cameras
At least three agencies in Clark County pump the brakes on transparency programs after new state requirements raise cost, manpower concerns
CLARKSVILLE, Ind. (WDRB) – Clarksville police officers started wearing clip-on cameras on their uniforms in 2012, storing video from traffic stops and domestic violence calls on a small server.
The department chose to record those interactions because they most often prompted complaints from citizens, Assistant Chief David Kirby said. And at times, he said, body-worn cameras vindicated officers who were accused of misconduct.
“I’ve had people come sit in my office, come in to complain about an officer,” Kirby said in an interview. “I play the video for them and they get up and don’t say a word and just leave.”
But the town halted its program after a new Indiana law took effect July 1. While it doesn’t require police departments and sheriff’s offices to deploy body cameras, the law mandates that agencies that use them store footage for at least six months and obscure the faces of minors, crime victims and others, and redact some personal information before releasing it.
House Bill 1019 unanimously passed both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly earlier this year, and Gov. Mike Pence signed it into law in March. But the new requirements have triggered concerns from some police agencies about the data storage costs and administrative hurdles that didn’t previously exist.
Clarksville had been keeping video for about one month. Faced with new retention rules and regulations for releasing video to the public, however, the police department stopped recording altogether earlier this summer.
“We just didn’t have the one person trained in that area, the capability of even doing it and the media to store video for that long was just again astronomical for us to start doing it right away,” Kirby said.
Jeffersonville Police also cited the law when it ceased using body cameras. Sgt. Isaac Parker said his department still believes the technology is worthwhile and is “exploring viable options to re-initiate the program.”
Elsewhere in Clark County, the Town of Sellersburg had hoped to outfit its 16 officers with cameras this year but scrapped the project because of the bill’s new requirements.
And while the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department had yet to decide whether to add officer-worn cameras, “when they passed the new legislation governing those body cameras, then that pretty much sealed the deal that we’re not going to do it,” Sheriff Frank Loop said.
The agencies’ actions illustrate how a bill meant to increase police transparency has created some unforeseen consequences.
Police departments, sheriff’s offices and other local agencies must retain the footage for 190 days – and, in some cases, for years. Police also must let those who are filmed view the recordings, and allow members of the public to receive copies of a video, but only after agencies obscure the identities of undercover officers, crime victims and children.
For Sellersburg, storage costs alone likely would have doubled if its department had implemented the body camera program, Police Chief William “Russ” Whelan said. Hiring or shifting duties to redact and monitor footage would have made the project even more expensive, he said.
Instead, Whelan directed officers to wear audio recorders that capture the sounds of police activity – but no video to show what’s happening.
“The cameras to me are very important,” he said. “But in a small town, that just puts a hardship on everybody involved.”
Karl Truman, a defense attorney who practices in Indiana, said he recognizes that storage and other costs are a concern for police departments. “But the cost can’t outweigh documenting these things for public and for historical purposes and for protection purposes,” he said.
The Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police and the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association weren’t aware of departments in the state – other than in Clarksville and Jeffersonville – that have halted their body camera programs in response to the law.
Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, said in written responses to questions from WDRB News that many law enforcement agencies are keeping their body camera programs, while other departments are adding the technology. Most of the concerns, he said, are related to storage and staff time for processing videos in response to public records requests.
"Thanks to online camera equipment rental, cloud storage and sophisticated video software, these technological issues can be overcome. I empathize with the cost concerns, but it is far from a chilling effect," Mahan said.
He noted that Indiana is among a handful of states that have enacted body camera laws and said all sides of the debate were heard before the bill passed in 2016.
"Moving forward, I will continue to listen to the concerns raised by local law enforcement agencies," he said. "If a legislative change is deemed necessary, I will look into authoring legislation."
Meanwhile, the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police doesn’t plan to ask for changes to the law during the legislative session that starts in January, said Leo Blackwell, the organization’s general counsel.
State Sen. Ron Grooms, who represents Jeffersonville and Clarksville, said he viewed the body camera bill as a way to protect police and citizens alike. He recalled some police officials warned of storage costs as lawmakers debated the legislation, but those concerns were not enough to derail his support.
“I think it’s very likely to come up in this session to discuss it,” although most legislators may not have had enough time to evaluate it, said Grooms, R-Jeffersonville.
Rep. Steve Stemler, a Jeffersonville Democrat, said prosecutors have raised concerns about the law’s requirement to release footage, which runs counter to Indiana rules that limit such disclosures while a criminal investigation or trial are underway.
“I do believe that you’ll see some amendments to address some of these issues,” he said.
Other aspects that could be considered include the fee the law established for copies of body camera footage, said Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association.
While the law capped those fees at $150, Key said some departments are charging the maximum amount up front. “They’re just starting off and saying, ‘Well, we’re always going to charge $150 for a copy.’ And so we are kind of wrestling through that.”
Michael F. Ward, executive director of the state’s police chiefs’ association, said his organization plans to look at the fee issue, but he declined to comment in detail.
Kentucky sets aside proceeds from sales of firearm auctions for a state-administered grant program that pays for body cameras, among other law enforcement equipment. No similar program exists in Indiana.
The U.S. Department of Justice approved nearly $17 million for body camera programs last month, including $86,500 for Carmel and $17,255 for Cumberland – the only two Indiana cities selected.
“I do hope the legislature reviews some way to make it more affordable for small communities,” said Martina Webster, a Sellersburg Town Council member. “I think it’s a valuable thing for citizens to have.”
In Clarksville, Assistant Chief Kirby said his department wants to restart its body camera program as soon as early next year. First, however, the agency must figure out how to pay for it.
Kirby estimates that a new server and software will cost $15,000, while one employee would need to be moved into full-time work overseeing the videos.
“We are testing body cameras right now trying to find a new vendor to go with hopefully after the beginning of the year once we can get funding for it,” he said. “We do find them very beneficial to have.”
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