By SARAH FENSKE
St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said Monday that he believes body and dashboard cameras will help to “close the trust gap” between the police and the public.
Last Wednesday, the city approved a $5.7 million contract to outfit its police officers with body cameras and dashboard cameras. City officials said some officers could be wearing cameras within a month.
And while Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, has argued that his union has a say in how cameras are implemented, Edwards pushed back on that. The collective bargaining agreement holds that the city has to discuss such changes in equipment, he said. That doesn’t mean they have to be negotiated.
“The collective bargaining agreement does not provide for the police officers association to have a veto right,” Edwards said on St. Louis on the Air. “It’s the chief’s decision. He makes the decision as the commissioner of police for the city of St. Louis.”
Edwards added that he had not heard from a single officer opposed to the cameras.
“I think our police officers really want this camera,” he said. “What it does for our police officer is the same thing it does for the public: It holds everybody accountable, and it establishes, in my mind, a trust between police and the community.”
Edwards said the cameras will be tied to triggers: If an officer pulls his weapon out of the holster, the camera will automatically turn on. It also activates if an officer is running, or lying horizontally.
Officers will be required to turn their cameras on manually when detaining a suspect, Edwards said.
“There will be directives, which will provide our officers all of the times and manners in which the cameras should be utilized,” he said. “We expect that to occur, and if it doesn’t, it will be a violation of our policies.”
In response to a question from a listener, Edwards talked about whether officers will wear their cameras even when patrolling for private employers. Many city neighborhoods contract with private security companies that employ off-duty officers. Those officers wear their city uniforms on the job.
Edwards said the city will need to address that question as a matter of policy; officers can’t, for example, take their city vehicles to outside jobs. He said, “It would be my hope, however, that any officer who appears to be under the umbrella of the St. Louis police department — i.e, they have on their police department uniform, they’re carrying their police department-issued weapon — I expect that camera will become a part of that uniform, and that camera would be operative at all times.”
Under state law, camera footage is closed during ongoing investigations, Edwards said. The exception comes if public interest outweighs other interests; in such cases, a court may order its release to the public.
“We’re constrained in certain situations,” he said. “But I can’t imagine we’d object to camera footage being released to the public if the public interest outweighs an investigation, so long as it does not compromise a juvenile’s identity, for example, or a victim in domestic violence.”
By contracting with Utility Associates Inc., the city is following a path trod by the St. Louis County Police Department. The Decatur, Georgia-based company won a contract to supply county police with cameras almost exactly a year ago.
Edwards said that department leaders have been in close communication with their counterparts in St. Louis County, and that they were able to benefit from the county working through difficulties such as the placement of cameras on not just uniform shirts, but also ballistic vests.
“Those were things St. Louis County was confronted with, and had to negotiate adjustments to, and those are things we were able to take advantage of … and fix those at the outset,” he said.
Edwards said that the money for the cameras is coming out of the police department’s budget, and that the city is exploring public-private partnerships for the funding.
He added that while he finds the protests against police brutality a positive thing, he doesn’t support calls to “defund the police” if that means cutting the public safety budget.
He does support efforts to expand the city’s Cops and Clinicians pilot program, which pairs social workers with officers.
“I thought it was fantastic,” he said of the program, which is slated to get another $800,000 this coming year. “It allowed our officers to learn from the social workers, with respect to situations like deescalation, involving people that we would regularly see with mental health issues.
“I think that taking a look at ‘how can we assist the police’ is a better statement instead of defunding the police,” he continued.
In St. Louis County, new Police Chief Mary Barton recently drew criticism for suggesting “systemic racism” does not exist within her department. (She later walked back those remarks.)
In contrast, Edwards stated flatly that he believes there is systemic racism within the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
“To deny that we have this problem is sticking your head and playing ostrich,” he said. “Your head is in the sand.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.