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After years of delay, Wilmington moves forward on funding part of police body camera program

Annie Ropeik
Delaware Public Media

Wilmington City Council approved funding to cover a portion of a body camera program for city police. 

Residents and advocates have called for Wilmington police to wear body cameras for years. Wilmington police piloted the cameras in 2016, but have not implemented them yet, often citing a lack of funding. 

Council passed a budget amendment Thursday adding $400,000 to this year’s budget for four new positions within the police department to administer the body camera program. The City is still hoping to receive a more than $540,000 federal grant to buy the cameras. 

Ciro Adams, the lone Republican on Council, expressed support for the budget amendment. 

“We’ve talked about police reforms periodically previously, but we haven’t moved in that direction. And this may very well be the first step,” said Adams. 

Adams said reforms should help everyone in the city feel secure and comfortable with the police department. 

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki committed to finding funding for the body camera program “without delay” this June following protests in the city over police brutality and racial injustice.

Dubard McGriff, a community organizer with the ACLU of Delaware’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said during public comment Thursday that body cameras are long overdue. But he has concerns about the program. 

“Will the public have access to [the video evidence] if something’s happening?” he asked. “At least the lawyers … ? And how will we hold the officers accountable with the body cameras?”

Wilmington Police Chief  Robert Tracy said in a statement Thursday night his department is still developing the policies that will guide the body camera program and the sharing of video. He said those policies will be reviewed by the City’s Law and Human Resources Departments, shared with the police union and then made public. 

Tracy said his department had the body cameras policy “basically written” in June, 2019.

Some members of City Council—primarily Vash Turner, who lost the last month’s Democratic primary race for City Treasurer, Sam Guy, who lost the Democratic primary race for at-large council member, and Trippi Congo, who won the race for City Council President but lost his seat representing the 2nd District over a residency requirement— have expressed frustration over the numerous delays surrounding body cameras. 

A resolution Congo sponsored that would have taken $700,000 from the City’s tax stabilization reserve to fund the program—including the four new positions and the cameras themselves—was held up last year. Public Safety Committee Vice Chair Councilman Chris Johnson said it was because a body camera policy under which officers can be disciplined requires an amendment to the police union’s contract.

President of Wilmington’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge Greg Ciotti said in February that body-worn cameras would be part of the contract negotiations ongoing at that time, but declined to explain why. 

State Fraternal Order of Police  president Fred Calhoun told Delaware Public Media this summer that equipping all agencies in Delaware with body cameras is a “no brainer.” He sees them as exculpatory for officers.

“Body cameras have shown that more officers have been cleared than not when it comes to use of force and citizen complaints,” he said in June. 

The News Journal reported Friday that the Wilmington Police Department’s federal grant application shows the Department hopes to use the cameras to reduce lawsuits and complaints against officers, to prevent protests, and to improve relationships with the community. The News Journal’s reporting also found Wilmington police hope to use body camera footage as evidence against civilians in criminal trials. 

Even with part of the funding secured, the timeframe for implementation of the Wilmington police body cameras program remains uncertain. 

Councilman Bud Freel said the City’s Administration has committed to funding the cameras whether or not the police department receives the grant. The department failed to receive the same grant last year. 

“If the grant comes in, that’s great,” said Freel Thursday. “If not, we will be back here doing another budget amendment to take care of that ... The Administration’s committed to that.”

Freel also introduced legislation from the Administration Thursday approving a five-year, nearly $2 million contract with Axon Enterprise, Inc. for body cameras and “related services.” The Wilmington Police Department plans to outfit every sworn officer, including those working desk jobs, with their own body camera. That comes to a total of 319 cameras, once the four new positions to administer the body camera program are factored in. 

The legislation approving the equipment contract will go before City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday. 

The federal grant, an Fiscal Year 2020 competitive grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, would provide $542,388 to purchase the 319 cameras.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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