Police union threatens legal action over body cameras

Chris Collins, union president, said the cameras represent a "clear change in working conditions"

By Joe Schoenmann

Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS — Metro Police don't have dashboard cameras, but this week officers will begin testing one type of body-worn camera with hopes of purchasing more of the cameras and putting them into regular use within the next fiscal year.

Money to purchase the cameras for the force has been set aside in next fiscal year's Metro budget.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak sits as one of five people on Metro's Fiscal Affairs Committee, which oversees Metro's budget. He said testing of the cameras would be completed in July, but the department planned to look at four or five more camera models before making a decision on which one to buy.

He added that he was happy to see Metro getting the cameras.

"It's something that will protect both officers who are wrongly accused and help clear up allegations and issues of police and citizen conduct more conclusively," Sisolak said. "Ultimately, (the cameras) will strengthen the public's trust in the department."

To get the cameras in use, however, Metro might have to first defend itself in court. The Las Vegas Police Protective Association is not backing down from its contention such cameras can't be forced upon officers without first negotiating with the union.

Chris Collins, union president, said the cameras represent a "clear change in working conditions," as they add new requirements to an officer's daily routine, including downloading the camera's data. The cameras, he added, also could impact an officer's safety. Both factors, he said, mean it is "mandatory" for the department to include the cameras within the scope of its union contract.

If the department moves to buy the cameras without that contractual consideration, "we are going to take legal action," Collins added.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie could not be reached for comment. But when the Sun outlined a similar union argument in February, the sheriff replied that he didn't see body cameras as a contract matter. If the union's contention on the camera were true, Gillespie had reasoned, the department also would have to negotiate when putting lights on a police car and a shotgun inside it.

Gillespie had said he was committed to getting the body cameras, which are being used or tested at hundreds of departments throughout the country. At the time, the sheriff's only worry was how to pay for the program.

Metro's budget for fiscal year 2012-13 appears to have resolved that issue. The department will use money from its forfeiture fund to purchase the cameras. By Nevada law, confiscated cash, along with proceeds from sales of items that came from "the commission or attempted commission of any felony" can be put into a forfeiture fund.

In the coming year, the department projects a base forfeiture fund of $1.45 million, with an additional $6.88 million added to it from the fund balance of the overall budget to bring the total to $8.3 million. The forfeiture fund shows projected expenses of $5.2 million for "minor equipment" and $2.8 million for "capital equipment."

Sisolak said that until a camera model was chosen, the exact amount of money drawn from the fund to pay for the cameras wouldn't be known.

Metro's lack of even dashboard cameras became more noticeable due to some recent cases involving incidents of alleged police misconduct.

Earlier this year, for instance, the city of Henderson agreed to a nearly $260,000 settlement, with Nevada kicking in another $35,000, due to the dashboard recording of an October 2010 incident involving Henderson Police Sgt. Brett Seekatz.

Michael Greene was captured on a Nevada Highway Patrol dashcam swerving as he drove east on Lake Mead Parkway. After Greene was dragged from his car and five officers put him on the ground, Seekatz came into camera shot and kicked Greene in the head five times. Greene, it was discovered, was suffering from diabetic shock. Seekatz was disciplined by the department but not fired. City Council members said they didn't know of the incident until this year. They were angered by it and, shortly after the Sun published the video, Henderson Police Chief Jutta Chambers announced her retirement.

Metro had its own embarrassing video incident from March 2011.

Resident Mitchell Crooks was videotaping police on a routine stop near Maryland Parkway and Desert Inn Road, when Officer Derek Colling approached him and, within seconds, had Crooks, who was now screaming, on the ground and under arrest. Colling's approach and questions are caught on video; then the camera is dropped. Talk and screaming can be heard but none of the subsequent altercation is on video.

Crooks filed a federal lawsuit alleging his rights were violated. Charges against Crooks were dropped, and the sheriff fired Colling in December. (Trying to get his job back, Colling filed a complaint with an arbitrator.)

In February, Metro agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement to Crooks. 

Copyright 2012 Las Vegas Sun
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