After years of discussion, Anchorage will consider a tax levy to fund body cameras for police

The downtown headquarters of the Anchorage Police Department on June 9, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage officials have discussed introducing body-worn cameras for police for a few years, but lack of funding has stopped the idea from moving forward. Until now.

Nationwide protests following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd revived the discussion, and Anchorage residents will vote in April on a tax levy to fund body cameras for the police department.

It’s the first concrete step toward purchasing the cameras, but there are a lot of unknowns on how they’ll be used and funded going forward.

Over the last decade, body cameras have become standard practice in police departments nationwide. They’re usually adopted with the goal of increasing police accountability and transparency, and helping protect police from false accusations. 

Anchorage police are currently equipped with dashboard cameras and audio recorders. The push to upgrade to body cameras reignited in earnest last summer, when Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, calling for an end to police brutality.

Celeste Hodge Growden is president of the Alaska Black Caucus, which has long been one of the loudest proponents of body cameras for the Anchorage Police Department.

“Clearly, there have been situations where if we had body cameras, there would be no question of what actually took place,” she said.

Growden hopes body cameras can bring transparency and accountability to police, particularly in cases of officer-involved shootings. Alaska reflects the nationwide trend of people of color being disproportionately killed by police.

The Anchorage Assembly moved forward in January with a plan APD proposed to fund cameras through a tax levy capped at $1.8 million, which residents will vote on in April. It’s an increase of about $5.32 per $100,000 in assessed property value.

Growden disagrees with the tax levy approach. If it is really a priority for the city, she said, the money should be found in the existing budget.

“It just falls on a different level with those in charge, and so I’m disappointed that now this whole issue is being pivoted, this priority is pivoted to our community to vote it up or down,” she said.

Assembly members have said they’re committed to funding body cameras another way if the tax levy fails. 

APD has consistently said there’s not enough money within its own budget to fund them. And cost is a huge obstacle, even if the tax levy passes. 

In an interview in late December, APD chief Justin Doll said while federal grants can help to launch a body camera program, the bulk of the cost comes from storing hours of video footage each officer collects every day. 

“If we decide to do this — which I think it’s not a bad idea for the police department to have body cameras, and I think pretty much everybody at APD is on board with it — I just want the community to understand that that’s a financial commitment that will be an every year financial commitment,” Doll said.

Doll announced last week he will retire in June. He is being considered for a police chief job in San Jose, Calif.

Over the last several years, the Berkowitz administration worked to rebuild APD’s budget after large cuts under Mayor Dan Sullivan. Officials said adding more officers and increasing investment in the department has resulted in the city’s lowered crime numbers

Today, with a budget of more than $120 million, APD makes up more than a fifth of the city’s budget. But Assembly member Meg Zalatel said trying to find permanent funding for body cameras would be difficult. 

“Trying to find $1.8 million in their budget is a considerable challenge. It would absolutely require eliminating staff. And that’s something we’ve learned the hard way isn’t a good idea,” Zalatel said.

The Assembly allocated $250,000 for the cameras in addition to the tax levy. Zalatel said there’s nothing stopping them from trying to find other funding sources, such as grants or proceeds from the sale of Municipal Light & Power. 

“If we can get a better deal, great, we don’t have to tax up to the amount,” she said. “I think this leads to some flexibility, but it’s also realistic.”

Along with funding, there are a lot of policy decisions to be made around how body cameras would be used, who can access footage, and when. 

Jeremy Conkling is president of Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, the union representing APD officers. He said the union hasn’t had those policy conversations with police administration yet.

“If (body cameras are) something that the community feels strongly about, and they’re willing to pay for via that tax levy, then great, we support that,” he said. “The only thoughts or requests that I have at this point is that we just want to be part of the conversation.”

Lawmakers and police will have to work out important details such as when officers are required to have cameras on, and whether they can view footage from their cameras before writing reports. There are also privacy concerns to address, like whether it’s okay to film inside people’s homes. 

Growden said it’s important to get the community involved, and particularly communities of color.

“Exactly what that looks like, I’m not sure right now … But I would love to possibly hold community meetings, have various experts at the table and let’s really get this right,” she said.

Last month, Chief Doll said the first step will be to reach out to the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission to get public input on body camera implementation. He said they are hoping to start using cameras by the end of this year.