Body cameras for State Police nixed from state budget

Published 3:00 pm Monday, June 3, 2024

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The $188 billion biennial budget General Assembly lawmakers and Gov. Glenn Youngkin agreed to on May 13 no longer includes funding that would have mandated body-worn cameras for Virginia State Police troopers.

State Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, whose legislative district includes Surry County, had several months ago proposed an amendment to the Senate’s budget bill that would have added $48 million to the VSP’s annual funding in 2025 and in 2026 to equip each of the state’s more than 1,100 sworn troopers with a camera and add nine new full-time employees to oversee the expanded pilot program.

By the time the bill advanced to a floor vote, the Senate Finance Committee had slashed Aird’s request to $6.2 million in 2025 only, which was estimated to cover 1,200 body-worn cameras.

When Youngkin, in March, proposed more than 200 budget amendments the House of Delegates and Senate each rejected, both chambers reconvened to pass House budget bills 6001 and 6002, which struck Aird’s funding request entirely and instead now require only that the VSP “provide a report” to both chambers by Nov. 1 of this year “on the current usage and estimated costs of body-worn cameras by sworn personnel.”

Aird said she’d proposed the $48 million amendment “to strengthen and maintain trust between the public and law enforcement.”

“I know this is a significant investment but one that will yield returns and current events demonstrate it is urgently needed,” Aird said. “While we didn’t get there this budget cycle, we made progress with language in the budget to report on the current status of the State Police’s body-worn camera pilot program and to map out the cost and structure of a potential future investment. Pending that report, I remain committed to fighting for funding in future general assembly sessions.”

This isn’t the first time the General Assembly has taken up but tabled the idea of equipping state troopers with body cameras. In a special August 2020 General Assembly session held three months after the May 25 murder of George Floyd by now-convicted former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, former Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, sponsored legislation that would have mandated all law enforcement agencies implement a body-worn camera system, which prompted the VSP to issue a report detailing the anticipated cost.

As of that year, the VSP had 354 WatchGuard Vista Wireless body-worn cameras made by Motorola, and another 100 made by competitor Axon, for 1,358 trooper positions, 226 of which were at the time vacant. Based on a January 2020 quote, the report estimated a cost of $6.5 million to distribute WatchGuard cameras to the remaining 1,050 troopers or $39.3 million for a 10-year contract with Axon for 1,050 camera packages that would include body-worn and in-car versions.

Smithfield’s and Windsor’s police departments and the Isle of Wight and Surry county sheriff’s offices already operate their own body-worn camera programs, making the VSP the only agency in either jurisdiction that doesn’t.

Body camera footage played a key role last year in a lawsuit brought by Virginia National Guard 1st Lt. Caron Nazario against two Windsor police officers who held him at gunpoint and pepper-sprayed him during a Dec. 5, 2020, traffic stop. Though the release of the footage on social media sparked accusations of racism, on account of Nazario being of Black and Latino descent, a Richmond jury largely sided with the officers when the case went to trial in 2023, awarding Nazario only $3,685 in damages.