Ginther's gamble on body cameras

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

In the heat of a difficult campaign, Andy Ginther vowed to bring police body cameras to Columbus by the end of 2016. Can he deliver?

The man of the momentdoesn't mention the most interesting item on his to-do list. Standing before a joyous throng in a Downtown Columbus hotel ballroom,Andy Gintherkisses his wife, Shannon, and thanks his supporters for his decisive victory. "We have a blueprint," Ginther tells the jubilant Democrats chanting his name. "We know the roles. Now it's time to get to work." He says nothing-at least directly-about his vow to outfit Columbus police officers with body cameras by the end of 2016.

But Columbus' mayor-elect can't avoid the subject for long. Questions surround his signature campaign promise, and he needs to come up with answers soon if he hopes to achieve his lofty goal. Huge obstacles stand in his way, including privacy concerns, police opposition and the biggest mystery of all: How will the city pay for the cameras? Asked about the feasibility of Ginther's idea and timetable, Columbus Fraternal Order of Police union president Jason Pappas says, "That's really ambitious, and I'll just leave it there."

Pappas says he doesn't question Ginther's motives. "I believe Mr. Ginther believes he's doing the right thing for the right reason," he says. But Pappas also suggests politics played a role. "I consider this a political environment for these body cameras."

Growing outrage over racially charged police violence has fueled interest in body cameras across the country. Cities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles have adopted the devices as a means for holding police officers accountable in the wake of recent police-related killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities. But unique local factors also were at play in Columbus when Ginther made his surprise proposal in September. Backed by his popular predecessor, Mike Coleman, Ginther, president of Columbus City Council, seemed poised to cakewalk to the mayor's office after trouncing his rivals in a May primary. Then his name came up in connection to a federal bribery investigation, creating an opening for Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott, Ginther's underdog opponent in the general election.

The manner and timing of Ginther's body-camera announcement raised eyebrows. No broad coalition stood behind Ginther when he threw his weight behind the idea. Coleman, who's stood by Ginther's side throughout the campaign, was a conspicuous no-show at the body-cameras press conference, as was Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs. Ginther told reporters the chief supported his proposal, but it sure didn't seem that way a few hours later when she held her own press conference and declared she'd rather spend money improving a driver's training facility and a police substation.

Ginther's proposal appeared rushed and designed to distract from the bad publicity the federal investigation was generating, as theDispatcheditorialized. Yet the idea was politically effective. Ginther's campaign succeeded in changing the conversation, as Scott engaged Ginther on body cameras when the sheriff probably should have spent all his time talking about the corruption allegations. As James Carville might say: It's the bribery scandal, stupid.

Body cameras also may have helped shore up Ginther's support among blacks. James Ragland, a community activist who ran against Ginther in the mayoral primary, endorsed Ginther in part because of his support for body cameras. "It opened up some doors for people to really take a different view of Andy as a leader in the city," Ragland says. "It does establish a level of trust with some segments of the African-American community that maybe had some doubts about Andy's record and intentions regarding our community."

To be sure, cameras aren't a new concept for Columbus police. The division already has about 315 dashboard cameras in patrol cars and about 300 "neighborhood safety cameras" stationed throughout the city, says George Speaks, Columbus' public safety director. But body-worn cameras are a new and expensive proposition. To outfit Columbus police would involve more than $6 million in startup costs, plus a yearly expenditure of more than $1 million, according to an estimate in a November 2014 internal Columbus police study.

Supporters say the small devices-mounted to eyeglasses, shoulder lapels or the front of shirts-keep officers on their best behavior, a belief that research is beginning to confirm. But the cameras also break new boundaries for police surveillance. They follow officers wherever they go, even into private homes and other places where there's an expectation of privacy, creating a host of new challenges.

Police need to sort out what constitutes a public record in such circumstances. They also need to devote considerable resources to store the vast amount of footage produced by cameras and to pay for personnel responsible for redacting videos. "I can tell you that some of the other jurisdictions that have implemented cameras have gotten out of the business due to the public records and redaction issues," Speaks says. The Columbus FOP, which endorsed Scott in the mayor's race, opposes the idea. Pappas calls body cameras "an unneeded and unwanted expense at this point."

Those questions led to a more measured approach under Coleman. Coleman supports body cameras in theory and created an advisory panel, overseen by Speaks, in September to explore the issue. But even with his considerable influence and political capital, Coleman never set a timetable for implementation, let alone one as ambitious as Ginther's.

Back at the election-night party, Ginther finishes his victory speech and takes questions from reporters. He says body cameras remain one of his top priorities. "We're not going to do it overnight," he says. "I know there are privacy issues and other things that need to be worked out. But this is quickly becoming a best practice for law enforcement around the country."

Does he still think he can deliver on his body-camera promise? "I'm going to do everything in my power to see that we get started," he says.