After Monday’s announcement that no charges will be filed in the shooting death of Hannah Fizer, there has been a renewed focus on the community’s concern about body cameras for the Pettis County Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office currently does not have body cameras for its deputies. The office spent $15,000 on 10 body cameras in 2017, funded through the remaining fund balances in the sheriff’s office budget in 2016. Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond told the Democrat in June that the cameras were operational for about a year when they experienced a hard-drive failure. He said the cost to replace the operating system was not feasible with the budget and the office has not had cameras since.
The Pettis County Commission approved the purchase of 23 body cameras from Turn Key Mobile for roughly $42,000 in late August. Bond told the Democrat on Wednesday the cameras are expected to be delivered in late October.
Bond said vendor research was conducted in June and July, followed by vendor demos in early August.
Pettis County IT Director Luke Goosen is building the server and backup for the camera footage, which will cost an estimated $7,000. Bond and Pettis County Presiding Commissionr David Dick said they looked for a system that was affordable, able to be updated, and easy to share footage with agencies such as the Sedalia Police Department, Missouri State Highway Patrol or Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney Phillip Sawyer.
Enough cameras were purchased for all patrol deputies to have their own, plus one to be shared by command and administrative staff.
Dick and Bond serve as alternates on the Regional Homeland Security Operating Committee, which makes decisions on awarding grant funds to law area enforcement agencies.
The Pioneer Trails Regional Planning Commission, serving Johnson, Lafayette, Pettis and Saline counties, oversees the committee. Pioneer Trails Commission Executive Director Norman Lucas wrote to Dick on Tuesday expressing his concern about a story published Monday night by Fox 4. He stated the news station “edited out all semblance of balance and all the positive comments stated about the Sheriff’s Department” during an interview with Homeland Security Planner Debbie Brackman about RHSOC grant availability related to Pettis County body cameras.
“The fraction of her comments remaining in the edited news segment were, unfortunately, taken out of that positive context and made to fit a news narrative, markedly differing from her own personal and professional views,” Lucas wrote.
Brackman told Fox 4 she emailed Bond in June about body cameras being eligible for the State Homeland Security Program grant after she saw an interview where Bond said funding wasn’t available to repair or buy cameras.
Bond said Brackman’s email came amid a “bombardment” of solicitation emails from vendors seeking to sell body cameras to the department and from community members willing to make donations or host fundraisers to help purchase the equipment.
“The problem with grants is, at least with this, No. 1 timing,” Bond said. “And No. 2, how long it takes for the payout to actually occur.”
The SHSP grant awards were decided this week, according to Bond. It then goes to the state for clearance. Dick said he had been told the funds would be made available to awardees in April. Bond said that means the county wouldn’t receive cameras until June 2021.
“We didn’t want to wait,” Dick said. “... the grant opportunity was there but the first we would’ve (been able to order) cameras would’ve been April. We didn’t think for Kevin’s folks to be in the field and then the way the community was trying to embrace the cameras that that was the right response, so we just went ahead and did it. We’re paying for them out of unallocated dollars. We keep some dollars there in case we have emergencies and we deemed this to be of utmost importance.”
Bond said the county was also able to “piggy back” on state contracts to help “fast track this process” of ordering cameras.
Bond said he sees the importance of body cameras for law enforcement officers, but other funding priorities took precedence in the last few years.
“Body cameras certainly are important and need to be addressed, but I also have to look at priorities and pay and benefits of my deputies is of utmost priority, obviously, I’ve been working diligently as long as I’ve been sheriff to improve the quality of our fleet,” Bond said. “Our vehicles are in much better shape than they’ve ever been. We’ve invested in heavier-duty vehicles … to be able to handle the county roads.”
Bond said communication has been another big priority, especially after the FCC issued a mandate that required changes to radio systems. Bond had applied for the RHSOC grant in previous years, most recently using a roughly $42,000 grant to purchase walkie talkies for deputies.
“Quite frankly, yes, body cameras and having footage is important, but if a deputy goes out on a call and he steps out of his car and he can’t talk back with dispatch, I have to make a decision about which is more important and that’s what’s more important,” Bond said.
In addition to a lack of body cameras, the Sheriff’s Office only has some of its vehicle fleet equipped with car cameras. Bond said staff has been working to obtain one to two new car cameras per year through the Missouri Local Law Enforcement Block Grant. He said it was an automatic grant each year but in 2020 it became competitive, so a grant was submitted in August for five car cameras. Deputies are writing a grant through a different program for two more.
Bond noted the new body cameras will integrate with existing car cameras.
Several issues plagued the previous set of body cameras beyond the hard-drive failure and lack of back-up system. Bond said there were “compliance issues with deputies wanting to wear” the previous cameras due to the clips tearing uniforms. A new piece was purchased to solve that issue, but it wasn’t wide enough to keep the camera stable. He said the cameras’ battery life also didn’t last a whole shift, so car chargers were purchased. One end was magnetic and the idea was for deputies to pull off the charger when getting out of their vehicle, however, that ended up damaging the USB end of the charger.
There were also only 10 cameras purchased, which caused problems when a camera wasn’t available because it was still being used by someone who wasn’t finished with their shift, or it wasn’t fully charged.
“It was a cascade of issues,” Bond said.
During a radio interview last month, Bond said the old system’s hard drive failed, and due to being improperly installed on the hard drive rather than an external drive, there was no backup. Shortly after, IT Director Goosen took to Facebook to address the comments, saying the IT Department had not been part of the 2016 purchase and the department did not have the “resources needed to properly house the body camera software, and more accurately, the space required to properly store, maintain and backup the footage once it was download.” He said the IT staff tried to fix the issue once the system failed, but were unable to do so due to software restrictions by the vendor. Goosen said he was not involved in any other camera discussions until this summer.
Bond said Wednesday he wanted to clarify that he does not blame the Commission or IT for the past camera issues. He said his radio comments were misconstrued, as the camera company installed the system, not IT.