Phoenix Budget Battle: Body Cameras Or More Police?

Phoenix’s proposed budget includes $11.4 million to equip every patrol officer in the Police Department with a body-worn camera to track interactions with the public, from routine traffic stops to homicide investigations.

But would that money be better spent hiring more officers or giving officers better pay and benefits? Or should the city try to balance all three demands at once?

That’s a debate among city leaders as they negotiate the city’s $1.22 billion budget for the next fiscal year. City Manager Ed Zuercher wants to set aside $11.4 million to phase in a full body-camera program over the next three years.

Some residents and council members have called for the city to instead use the money to speed up police hiring or restore pay and benefits for officers who took cuts the past six years. The money could pay for about 100 more officers for one year.

“I would lay odds the majority of the public would rather see our officers better compensated with that $11 million, or more officers,” Councilman Sal DiCiccio said at a recent meeting.

Mayor Greg Stanton and other council members have insisted the city can do all of the above: hire more police, restore officer pay and deploy more body cameras.

Phoenix already has a plan to hire more than 500 new officers by 2019, including about 300 this year and 145 in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The city also recently announced that the police union has tentatively agreed to a labor contract that would restore their pay and benefits over three years.

“I think it’s a false choice to say, ‘Body cameras or police officers,'” Zuercher said in an interview. “This budget shows you we can do both.”

Why body cameras?

Zuercher said the city’s move toward body cameras is needed given the “critical state” of policing in America. He said cameras ensure accountability from the Police Department while protecting officers from false accusations.

“We’re not Baltimore, but we’re a big city and we have those interactions all the time, and we are at risk for those sort of critical incidents,” Zuercher said. “If you’ve got a tool that can help you with that and assure the public, we should do everything we can to take advantage of that tool.”

Body cameras have become part of the national discourse after officer-involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities. In Phoenix, there were protests last year after the death of Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed man suspected of selling drugs, who was fatally shot by a Phoenix police officer.

The city has 139 cameras in use — most are deployed in the department’s Maryvale Estrella Mountain Precinct — and grant funding to pay for about 150 more. Zuercher’s plan would acquire about 2,000 cameras to equip the full force.

The bulk of the cost is not for the cameras. Once implemented, the city estimates it will cost $5 million to $7 million per year to operate a body-camera program, including hiring 30 to 40 employees to process video for legal proceedings and public-records requests.

Advocates say data shows cameras work. An Arizona State University study found complaints against Phoenix police officers in the Maryvale precinct declined when officers’ and citizens’ actions were recorded. Studies in Mesa and other cities showed similar results.

Benjamin Taylor, a Phoenix criminal defense attorney, said body cameras protect both officers and the public from false eyewitness accounts. “Body cameras show the real evidence,” he said.

Demand for more officers

The push for body cameras has received mixed reviews from council members and residents. Many who attended city budget hearings over the past month said officials should use the money to hire more cops and provide officers better compensation.

Councilman Michael Nowakowski, who chairs the council’s public safety subcommittee, has said body cameras are a want, not a need. Hiring more police is an immediate need, he said.

“I’ve been hearing in our community over and over and over again that they’d rather have more police officers out there in the streets,” Nowakowski said at a council meeting last month. “And that they want to make sure that our police officers are being paid a just wage also.”

A seven-year hiring freeze that ended last year shrank the city’s sworn police force by roughly 700 officers — Phoenix has about 2,700 officers today, down from about 3,375 in 2008. Response times have climbed, and the department is using detectives to help keep patrol shifts staffed.

Phoenix also has reduced pay and benefits for officers. But Zuercher announced Friday that the city has forged a tentative agreement with the police union to fully restore their compensation over three years.

Meanwhile, many residents who attended the city’s budget hearings said they think the city’s officer shortage has had a negative effect on their neighborhoods.

Among them was Rosemary Holusha, who has lived in central Phoenix’s North Encanto area for three decades. She said she’s never noticed more crime and hears about burglaries regularly. She questions if would-be criminals are feeling emboldened because they know the police force is smaller.

“All I know is that we just need more police,” Holusha said. “I think it would really send a signal. I really do.”

Although overall crime has dropped in the past decade, there has been a recent uptick in violent crime. According to data provided to the FBI, Phoenix police received 4,513 reports of violent crime in the first half of 2015, compared with 4,234 in the first half of 2014 — a nearly 7 percent increase.

Meanwhile, property crimes dipped during the same period. The city received 27,356 reports of property crime in the first half of 2015, compared with 28,145 in 2014 — almost a 3 percent decrease.

Police hiring underway

Several council members who support a full body-camera program said the city already has an aggressive plan to rebuild its police force. Some question whether the city has the ability to hire officers more quickly than it’s already doing.

Councilwoman Thelda Williams, an early supporter of body cameras, said she doesn’t think the Police Department has enough personnel to accommodate many more new hires on top of the 445 officers expected to join the force in the current and upcoming fiscal years.

“I think we are hiring as fast as we can hire them,” Williams said. “I want the police officers, but I think we need to do it in a reasonable fashion.”

Zuercher echoed that sentiment, saying, “We’re stretching our folks to the max now to get this year’s number and next year’s number.”

There are also questions about how Phoenix would pay for extra officers beyond the first year.

The 445 positions Zuercher has budgeted have a fixed funding source: special public-safety sales taxes. Phoenix froze officer hiring for seven years because funds from those taxes had a negative balance. Hiring resumed when the balance of the funds improved.

Adding more officers to the hiring schedule would require the city to find another funding source, said Budget and Research Director Jeff Barton. The $11.4 million that Zuercher wants to set aside for body cameras is largely one-time money.

From The Arizona Republic

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