EDITORIAL: Anchorage deserves action on police body cameras

Aug. 27—Anchorage Police Department APD Stock

With each passing month, the Anchorage Police Department's delay tactics on adopting body-worn cameras become more of an outrage. For the better part of a decade, APD has promised it's moving toward equipping officers with the cameras, which would help provide an objective record and give the public a tool to help make sense of highly charged interactions between public safety officers and the people they serve. And for the better part of a decade, Anchorage residents have rightfully become more and more skeptical that the department will keep its promises of greater transparency.

That's why residents took matters into their own hands in April 2021, passing a bond measure to voluntarily tax themselves an additional $1.8 million to fund the cameras after the police department said it couldn't find the money in its $125 million annual budget.

But it seems the problem wasn't money after all. In more than a year since the camera funding measure passed, there has been effectively no progress toward officers wearing cameras. A draft policy has been circulated and public input taken, but for most of 2022, there has been no movement on the issue and no satisfactory explanation for why that's been the case.

What's worse, it appears the department hasn't been shy about repurposing the funds allocated to other priorities without a clear connection to body cameras. Police spokeswoman Renee Oistad said the department has spent about half a million dollars to replace computer-aided dispatch and record systems; Oistad claimed those upgrades were necessary before body cameras could be used. But it's hard to see how those changes were more of a "need" than a "want," as their connection to the body-camera project is unexplained and unclear. It's also unclear how defensible it is for the department to be repurposing, seemingly at will, the body-camera money specifically allocated for that purpose in what should have been a binding referendum.

Meanwhile, there is no hint of urgency from City Hall, the department or the police union on the issue. After the body-camera policy was adopted in March, the department and union waited months — until June — to even start talking about whether the union would agree to it. In the past three months, they've met a total of three times and it's not clear when, if ever, they'll come to terms.

This protracted foot-dragging is an embarrassment. No fewer than 80% of America's large police departments were using body cameras six years ago. The longer this goes on, the worse Anchorage looks and the more its police department looks like it has something to fear from greater transparency and accountability.

The fact of the matter is, especially when funding isn't an issue, things happen when the people at the top want them to — and if they don't, that's because the people at the top don't want them to. The longer this takes, the more blame can be laid at the feet of Chief Michael Kerle, Mayor Dave Bronson and the leadership of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association. By inaction and deliberate stalling tactics, they're telling us that they don't have to do what citizens want.

And that's a problem. Our police are given a monopoly on the legal use of force, and in return, they're accountable to the people they serve and who pay for their salaries and equipment. That's the way it's supposed to work. But if the department takes the money it's given by the people for a specific purpose, spends part of it on other equipment and tells the public, in effect, "We might get to the thing you want and funded, but who knows when it will happen," it's a breach of that agreement, and residents have every right to be angry — and to seek remedy for it, whether at Assembly meetings, City Hall, or in the courts.