Body worn cameras — what’s the status?

There is confusion about the status of deploying body worn cameras in Nashville. Samantha Max at WPLN had a good story earlier this week that lays out the history of delays. Other media also have reported extensively about the evolving time line and cost. Before I get into my perspective about what has happened, I should explain some context for my perspective.

The context

The information I am relying on has been gathered over the last few years. It comes from some who are new to government, and many who have been in government through three or more mayors. It comes from multiple departments. I don’t think I am relying on any one person for any information I lay out today.

My purpose in writing this is not to assign blame. I have guesses about the (mostly good) personal motivations of the individuals involved, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is moving forward. And we’ve reached the point where I don’t think the government or the public will be able to effectively move forward on body cameras without a broad understanding about what has happened.

While I don’t seek to assign blame, some will want to draw conclusions about blame. I am trying my hardest to not worry about the intent of anyone involved. First, to move forward, the city needs a process that is bigger and better than any one person’s intent. Second, I have a hard time looking into another person’s soul to decide intent. I’ll use a sports metaphor to make this point.

If there is a point guard in basketball who shoots a lot more than he passes, the team will almost always be bad. From the outside, it looks like an intent to hurt the team. And sometimes, the point guard is selfish and doesn’t care much about the team. But other times, the point guard genuinely thinks that every shot is an awesome shot and he just can’t help himself but to launch the ball without passing every time down the court. For me, when I see a point guard doing that, I’m not sure I care whether he’s fundamentally a jerk or just thinks every shot is a good shot. Either way, I know the coaching stinks. The problem can always be solved by some combination of benching the player or coaching the player. Bottom line — I’m not getting into intent or blame today, but I will talk about the coaching.

So, what happened?

The inability to deploy body cameras in Nashville before now is another fundamental failure of leadership. The dynamics behind this failure are similar to the reasons why the budget is a mess. It’s easy to have press releases and talking points. It is more difficult to build and guide a functioning team to accomplish needed change. From my seat in the Metro Council, it is easy to feel like “leadership” means the full-time Mayor with full-time staff. But, I know that from the public perspective, “leadership” means all of us who are at the top of the organization chart.

I believe that, at this moment, MNPD has spent a portion of the capital money that it was appropriated (mostly on servers, storage, and other IT infrastructure) and wants to move forward with more purchases (mostly of cameras), but many of the other parties involved are concerned whether MNPD may be throwing good money after bad. There are concerns about whether the infrastructure that MNPD has built will work, whether it is the correct infrastructure for the job, and that there is not an adequate plan about how the infrastructure will work with other departments. There is also significant concern that the new operating costs of a complete deployment are not known and are not feasible given the current budget crunch. It appears that MNPD may have a preference for pointing to the budget issues for the current delay. Others would point to the other concerns I have mentioned as the reasons for the current delay.  I think the Mayor’s Office is working very hard, aggressively even, to get a reasonable, effective deployment in the field as soon as humanly possible.

Let me get into some of this in more detail.

It seems clear to me that there has not been effective teamwork among the Mayor’s Office (over the last few years), MNPD, the DA, the PD, and the courts. MNPD has what appears to be its own game plan and has been executing it. The DA has been louder than most of the others in letting us know that he has important questions about process and cost. The others have raised similar issues, but more quietly. I have heard some say that there has been no coaching or central control or team captain for this process. I have heard others say that MNPD has been in charge. Either way you look at it, the teamwork has been poor. And the result is that MNPD has moved in a direction that the others have questions about.

I’m told by multiple sources that the technical architecture of the system is unique. The federal government and others use cloud storage. MNPD has purchased physical servers. Those servers are subject to laws that don’t allow non-law enforcement people to use them. That means there is no current way for defense lawyers to review information on the system that is being built. I could go on, but you get it. MNPD believes they are building a better mouse trap. Others are less sure. Either way, the system is apparently unique and never been tested in real-time. I think this factor alone would make a large scale immediate deployment foolish. Before MNPD moves forward with purchasing the thousands of vehicle mounted and body worn cameras that it wants to buy, the other departments in the system need to have some confidence that it will work and that they will be able to interface with what MNPD has designed and built.

The poor teamwork has created other problems too. I believe that, as of today, there is no plan for where and how defense lawyers would review video. There are also multiple approaches around the country for how to deal with redacting personal information or the images of minors in households. There are pros and cons for each approach. But there has been very little conversation in Nashville about what approach to take. The answers to these and other open questions will in large part drive the new annual operating costs of the system. In fact, the main reason why nobody can tell us what the ongoing operating costs will be is because the poor teamwork has prevented these issues from getting anywhere close to solutions.

This narrative gets to the core of several key question…here’s the summary:

Where’s the money? MNPD has spent capital dollars so far mostly on servers and storage. I think they want to move forward with purchasing a large number of cameras. Others aren’t sure MNPD’s system will work without sufficient real-time testing.

Where do we go from here? Nashville is good at implementing whatever its 2 or 3 most important projects are. The poor teamwork that has plagued this project has to stop. There needs to be a coach who is calling the plays, and the players need to run the plays. If we (the public, the media, the Council) are not really clear about who is calling the plays, then we know that nobody is and this ineffectiveness will continue.

When I look at all of these factors together, I believe that the best approach would be to buy just enough cameras to have a meaningful test of the technical infrastructure that has been built. That would get the apparently novel storage infrastructural operational. An initial deployment would also give the various other departments involved a chance to work through the unresolved issues without grinding the gears of justice to a halt. It would also provide real information about any new operating costs.

I may get criticized for parts of this analysis from multiple angles. If that happens, so be it. I’m trying to wear my problem solving hat today. At this point, ideas about how to make the system perfect are less important than getting the beginning of a good system fielded absolutely as soon as possible.

Bob Mendes

Bob Mendes represents all of Nashville as a Council-At-Large member of Nashville’s Metro Council. He is Chair of the Council’s Charter Revision Committee, a member of the Metropolitan Audit Committee, and a member of the Council’s Budget & Finance Committee, Rules & Confirmations Committee, and Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee. Bob also practices business law at Waypoint Law PLLC. Bob’s complete bio is here. You can follow Bob @mendesbob.