Rock County deputies and jailers will be wearing body cameras for the first time after a last-minute change to the county’s 2021 budget Tuesday.
Sheriff Troy Knudson said he hopes to buy the equipment as soon as possible and have deputies wearing the cameras by February.
Body cams have become key in investigations of police shootings and brutality around the country, but not all agencies have them.
The NAACP of Beloit was among the organizations and residents who asked the sheriff or the county board to consider body cams, Knudson said.
The cost is expected to be $365,965 for cameras to outfit 105 deputies plus 91 correctional officers at the jail and for storage of the recordings.
The jailers likely will get their cameras in the second half of 2021, Knudson said.
Another $89,016 is earmarked for an analyst who will oversee the recordings, maintaining the ones needed for evidence and editing public records requests, Knudson said.
The county board unanimously approved the budget change when approving the $212 million 2021 budget Tuesday night.
Mary Beaver, chairwoman of the board’s public safety and justice committee, worked with Knudson on the budget change.
Beaver said the recordings could protect the county from lawsuits, and it could make deputies safer because people often change their behavior when they know they are being recorded.
Racial justice advocates say body cameras can show misconduct by officers, leading to justice for families of victims and improvements in law enforcement.
Beaver said board members Rick Richard and Doug Wilde were leaders on the issue.
Richard said the cameras will improve evidence collection and transparency and can resolve disputes about what happened in an incident.
“I have great respect for the work Rock County deputies do, and in my opinion, in this time of ‘defund the police,’ body camera evidence could be used to ‘defend our police,’” Richard said in an email.
Wilde noted that Kenosha police didn’t have body cameras, so there was no police recording of the Aug. 23 incident in which police shot and wounded Jacob Blake, 29, which could have blunted the outrage.
“Instead, you had a city on fire and resentment and tension between law enforcement and the community,” Wilde said. “It didn’t need to happen. If they had cameras like we’re going to now, like our jail is going to now, that situation could’ve been avoided.”
Wilde said the purchase united those who back law enforcement and activists who call for changes in the name of racial justice.
Knudson had applied for a grant to start a body-cam pilot program that would not have outfitted all deputies, but the grant was denied.
Knudson said he applied for the grant before protests ignited across the country last summer. He was moved to seek full funding after seeing what happened in recent police incidents and the resulting protests.
Wilde praised Knudson for his response: “This is a bold statement to the people who are crying out to be heard, and more than any words, putting forward that policy and asking us to consider it, speaks volumes. … (Knudson) also heard the reaction from the police and made a decision to put forward a program that truly serves the objective of justice and of facts of anyone who is accused of unlawful use of force.”
The costs won’t change the county’s tax levy for 2021. The money will come from sales tax revenue that has been set aside for capital projects and from a budget cut that deletes a plan to hire a county communications manager.
Beloit, Janesville and some other police forces in the county have had body cameras for some time.
The system Knudson intends to buy is from the same company that supplies the county squad-car cameras, WatchGuard.
The new WatchGuard body cams record constantly, so if deputies fail to turn them on, recordings can be recovered at the end of a shift, Knudson said.
Knudson noted that in some incidents around the country, a major concern has been the failure of officers to activate their cameras.