Waco police got the nod Tuesday from Waco City Council to recruit vendors to supply body-worn cameras for all Waco police officers — and the huge data files they will produce.

Police Chief Ryan Holt said he will put out a request for proposals in coming weeks for the system and bring in the top vendors to do a demonstration before making any purchases.

Holt said he doesn’t yet have a firm estimate on the cost of the cameras and the accompanying storage and data management services, but he is hoping the council will agree to purchase them in the 2017-18 budget year.

The city of San Antonio is spending $1,500 per officer for body-worn cameras. At that rate, the city of Waco would pay about $370,000 for 247 sworn officers.

But Holt said the price of cameras and data storage has been falling rapidly, and some vendors are offering to provide the cameras at no extra charge for police departments that contract for data storage.

“Literally in the last month, there have been significant strides in technology,” he said. “It’s a situation of us trying to stay on top of the technology.”

The council in September hired a consultant, Winbourne Consulting, to help police devise a strategy for a body-worn camera system, which is intended to help resolve disputes about police behavior.

“Do you think this would be a benefit to the department and a necessary expenditure?” Councilman John Kinnaird asked the chief.

“Absolutely,” Holt said. “It’s a big investment, but it’s cheap insurance. It’s going to give us a real look into how officers do their business, how we interact with the public. This gives us an in-depth look into our interactions with the public, and that can only help us.”

Tom Maureau of Winbourne Consulting said some police departments have rushed into buying body-worn cameras without anticipating the challenges.

“I have to give commendation to the city and Chief Holt for understanding this in advance before purchasing a body-worn camera system,” Maureau said. “The city is ahead of the game by understanding this information.”

Challenges faced

Challenges include creating protocols to determine when officers must turn on their camera, establishing storage methodologies and records retention schedules and handling open records requests.

The city of Waco doesn’t have a “data warehouse” of the scale needed to handle such records, and building and staffing one could be cost-prohibitive, city staff said.

“We don’t have the capacity to absorb this kind of project and sustain it,” information technology director James Brown said.

Brown said a better solution would be to contract data storage with a third party through “the cloud.”

Even with that kind of outsourcing, the city would still need to staff at least three positions to handle the data and open records requests.

Holt said open records requests tend to increase when departments adopt body-worn cameras, though the extent varies from city to city. He said redacting videos to protect the privacy of people on camera is one of the most difficult challenges. For example, if a child runs in front of a camera during a patrol officer’s visit to an apartment, the child’s face would have to be blurred.

Councilman Jim Holmes said he supports the idea of body cameras with outsourced data storage.

“I think it’s great that we’re moving in the direction of body-worn cameras,” Holmes said.

Whatever the cost of the body-camera system, it may pale in comparison to the other requests Holt made in an in-depth presentation Tuesday on his department’s needs.

Holt, who became police chief in December, made the case for increasing the number of officer positions from 247 to 279 in the next four years, for a total of 32 new positions. That would cost an estimated $2.4 million a year in salaries and benefits after the initial costs of training and equipping new officers.

Holt requested 10 new officers for the next fiscal year, which starts in the fall.

Holt said Waco’s recent and projected population growth has put a strain on the force, as has the proliferation of big public events. He cited estimates that 2.1 million visitors attended local tourist attractions last year, a 219 percent increase over the previous year.

Holt said the department has used overtime to provide minimum levels of staffing.

“Unfortunately, employing on overtime is only a short-term methodology,” he said. “It can result in fatigue. When an officer is working minimum staffing, there’s no time for those officers to form relationships in the communities they serve.”

He said increasing the number of patrol officers would help improve response times, and adding more detectives and nine civilian positions would help the department focus on prevention and crime-solving.

Council members said Holt provided a strong case, but the budget has many demands this year.

“It’s a big ask,” Kinnaird said. “I look forward to more discussion. Public safety is a top priority, and I know we’ve asked you do more enforcement with existing resources.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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