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Body Cameras "Critical" For Unified Police, But Funding Is Precarious

Screenshot of body camera footage.
Salt Lake City Police Department
Patrick Harmon was shot and killed in 2017. District Attorney Sim Gill found a Salt Lake City police officer justified in his use of deadly force based on body camera footage.

The Salt Lake Unified Police Department board of directors is considering whether to continue funding the use of body cameras for officers.

For the past two years a federal grant paid for 125 officers throughout Salt Lake County to wear body cameras to capture incidents in the field. That federal funding expired this year. Now the UPD board of directors is trying to find out how to cover the program in next year’s budget.

“It’s become evident that body cams are probably a service that needs to be funded. It’s our challenge to find out, alright, where’s the money or how do we get it?” said Jim Bradley, a board member for UPD and an at-large member of the Salt Lake County Council.

The Salt Lake Unified Police Department spans cities around Salt Lake County from Magna to Riverton to Holladay. Paying to expand body cameras to the full 320 Unified Police officers and store hundreds of thousands of hours of footage will cost $400,000 annually, Bradley said.

Using body cameras is supported by community activists, police watchdog groups and law enforcement alike.

“The person who’s dead cannot defend themselves. Those cameras are the only window we get to see their last moments on earth,” said Lex Scott, an advocate with the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter.

Scott referenced several officer use-of-force situations in which body cam footage played a key role, including the deaths of Patrick Harmon and Dillon Taylor in Salt Lake City, and Elijah Smith in West Valley City.

Body camera footage is also seen as a tool to add context for attorneys who represent Unified Police officers and the Salt Lake County District Attorney.

“Once you’ve done it, I don’t think you can undo it,” said District Attorney Sim Gill, of the choice to discontinuing the use of body cams. Gill is frequently called upon to evaluate deadly police use of force matters in Salt Lake County.

“Sometimes it brings us additional evidence that we would not have. It’s critical,” Gill said.

According to Harry Souvall, an attorney who represents the Unified Police Department, the footage largely exonerated officers since they had cameras in the past 18 months. He said it also revealed occasional inappropriate behavior like officers using bad language.

The issue of whether and how to fund the body camera program will be brought up again at the next UPD board meeting in May.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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