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St. Louis County Council Gives Initial OK To Police Body Cameras

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar listens to U.S. Attorney General  Sessions' remarks. (03/31/17)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar says a new body camera agreement could keep officers safe and provide transparency for St. Louis County residents.

The St. Louis County Police Department is closer to having its officers use body cameras.

The St. Louis County Council gave initial approval Tuesday night to bills cementing a five-year agreement with Utility Associates Inc. County officers would get newer technology over the life of the roughly $5 million deal — as well as cameras that will be in police cars.

Police Chief Jon Belmar says the cameras can turn on automatically if an officer is running — or if there’s a gunshot.

“It really is good tech,” Belmar said. “And I think it answers some questions on really where we’ve seen some holes in some of the tech with other departments over the years. So we’re trying to do a workaround on that so we have the most solid system we possibly can have.”

Belmar also said the agreement includes cloud storage for the camera footage. He said one of the biggest challenges, and expenses, of using body cameras isn’t the actual equipment — but figuring out where to store the footage.

“And I talked to a larger agency than mine, but it was up in the Northeast. They spent $8 million on a server. And the comment from the chief was, ‘I’m not sure that’s enough.’ Well, that’s a lot of money,” Belmar said. “So really with cloud storage, we don’t have to worry about that.” 

Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, said body cameras could not only ensure officer safety — but also provide more transparency for residents. Body cameras became a popular policy suggestion after a Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014.

“Now we may continue to have issues with officers not having them turn on or not wearing them. That again would be subject to discipline, possibly termination. All of those things would apply,” Trakas said. “But the bottom line is, at least as far as I’m concerned, the use of body cameras will wind up being a plus for the community and for police officers.”

The council needs to vote one more time to approve bills approving the contract and appropriating the money for the camera program. The money is coming from the Prop P law enforcement sales tax approved by voters.

Page picks new county counselor

During Tuesday’s council meeting, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced he was appointing Beth Orwick as the new county counselor. 

Orwick is now an assistant U.S. attorney, and used to work for the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office. The county counselor is responsible for handling the bulk of the county’s legal affairs.

“She is smart, ethical and devoted to public service,” Page said. “I hope Beth’s appointment will help us continue to restore public trust in our county government and to demonstrate how serious we are about moving out of the mess made by the prior administration.”

Page was alluding to former County Executive Steve Stenger, who resigned after being indicted on public corruption charges.

One of Orwick’s first tasks, he said, will be to provide legal opinions on the Sunshine Law “to ensure we are being open and transparent following state and county laws and our county charter.” 

“I anticipate authorizing the release of a significant amount of information, but I need the opinion of our new county counselor to do so,” Page said.

The council needs to approve Orwick’s appointment before she can start her new job.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.