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Cost for Cleveland police body camera program could rise

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2015 file photo, Duluth police officer Dan Merseth, left, wear a the body camera on the front of his uniform during his shift in Duluth, Minn. Cleveland's move to buy 1,500 police body cameras and data storage could cost up to $3.3 million over five years, a higher price tag than previously known and an illustration of the long-term costs of such programs with Taser International. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland’s move to buy 1,500 police body cameras and data storage could cost up to $3.3 million over five years, a higher price tag than previously known and an illustration of the long-term costs of such programs.

The city’s contract with Taser International, released Wednesday to The Associated Press after a January open records request, envisions Cleveland spending half a million dollars or more per year in storage, maintenance and replacement costs once the fledgling program is fully operational. City officials in December had budgeted up to $2.4 million over three years for the purchase, which is among the largest municipal orders of body cameras to date.

A series of killings involving police around the country — including in Cleveland — have put pressure on departments to deploy body cameras as a way to improve policing and transparency.

In some cases, though, departments are struggling to pay for the equipment and the years of data storage required. Some are waiting, betting that the price and risk will come down as concerns such as the privacy of those filmed and the public’s ability to access to the videos are worked through. Others hope that states and the federal government will make more money available. Some, like Los Angeles, have turned to private donations to get started.

In Baltimore, which has been on edge following the death of a 25-year-old man in police custody last month, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed plans for a body camera program in December over concerns about the high costs and other details. She announced Wednesday the city is moving forward with plans to have a pilot program by the end of the year.

The U.S. Department of Justice last month announced a $19 million competitive matching grant program to help local agencies outfit and train their officers on the cameras. But that is expected to be split into awards for up to 50 departments, and will not help pay for data storage that quickly costs more than the cameras themselves.

Supporters of body cameras predict the devices will save money in the long run by drastically reducing the use of force against suspects, misconduct complaints against officers and civil lawsuits that follow.

Cleveland officers have come under scrutiny because of high-profile shootings, including that of a 12-year-old boy carrying a pellet gun in November. The Department of Justice concluded last year that police engaged in a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations.

Councilman Matt Zone, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said Thursday the cameras are worth what they cost if they improve accountability. He noted that the city has paid approximately $7 million the last few years to settle lawsuits, an amount that far exceeds what it will cost to deploy and maintain cameras the next five years.

“It’s a significant investment,” Zone said. “Whether you buy new vehicles or technology, you’re going to have ongoing maintenance.”

Cleveland’s contract with Taser could eventually rise to more than $3.3 million over five years if the city opts to replace the cameras in the third, fourth and fifth years of the deal as suggested. A proposed payment schedule envisions the city spending $536,000 in 2019, the final year, on storage, software licenses, warranties and replacements, the contract shows. The city has the option to renew or cancel every year.

Dozens of departments have cited cost as a factor in their decision to delay adopting body cameras to date, according to the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum. But as they become increasingly popular among officers, civil rights activists and policymakers, “there’s going to be more funding sources,” said Lindsay Miller, a researcher with the group.

Cleveland Councilman Zack Reed, who represents a ward on the east side with some of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, said he’s “more than happy to spend money on body cameras.”

“We need all the eyes on the ground we possibly can,” he said.

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Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.

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