On June 2, the workgroup examining the effect of body-worn cameras on the state’s public safety and judicial systems held its first meeting of 2021. This workgroup is an extension of an initial effort conducted by the Compensation Board in 2018, as directed by budget language, to review the effects of the use of the cameras on the workload of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Budget language in 2019 directed the Secretary of Public Safety to convene a larger workgroup to continue to review the issue, and expanded the group’s scope to encompass the state’s public safety and judicial agencies as a whole. The budget language also directed Commonwealth’s Attorneys to collect certain data regarding the amount of body-worn camera footage received from their local law enforcement agencies and time spent redacting these videos. Budget language in 2020 and 2021 continued the workgroup to enable more extensive data collection. The workgroup’s report is now due November 15, 2021.
At the June 2 meeting, the workgroup received an update on the new Body Worn Camera Grant Program, which was initially established through an appropriation of $6.4 million in the state budget during the 2020 Special Session. (Legislation enacted in the 2021 legislative session established the Body-Worn Camera System Fund in statute to assist state or local law enforcement agencies with the costs of purchasing, operating, and maintaining body -worn camera systems.) The Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) administers the program, and grants require a 50 percent local match. The Department released its initial solicitation for applications in December 2020, with a final deadline of February 26, 2021. Awards totaling approximately $1.3 million were made. Tracy Matthews with DCJS noted that the local match was a barrier for some jurisdictions in making use of the funds, especially as the program was created in the middle of the fiscal year.
Robyn de Socio, Executive Secretary of the Compensation Board, reported on the data collection from Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ offices that is required by the Appropriation Act language. Response rates have dropped from 55 percent of affected offices reporting data to 32 percent. However, additional budget language included in 2021 directs the Compensation Board to contract with the National Center for State Courts to perform a time study of Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ duties and responsibilities as part of a required examination of Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ staffing standards. Review of body-worn camera footage will be included in this time study. A report with the results of the study and recommended revisions to staffing standards is due November 1, 2022. This effort is a promising approach to gathering comprehensive data on the workload effects of body-worn cameras and a potential avenue for the state to adjust its support of Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ offices to reflect prevailing practices instead of basing staffing solely on statutorily-mandated responsibilities. State funding to meet existing Compensation Board staffing standards for Constitutional offices remains a priority for VACo, and budget action in the 2021 Appropriation Act to fund an estimated 25 percent of positions due to Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ offices was a welcome effort.
The meeting concluded with an overview of body-worn camera technology used by the Newport News Police Department and the evolution of the program over recent years, and an opportunity for stakeholder updates. Representatives of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys noted that new technology is being explored that expedites attorney review of camera footage by generating a rough transcript of the footage. With respect to the group’s next steps, work group members expressed interest in advocating for reappropriation of the unused Body-Worn Camera Grant Program funds for use in a subsequent fiscal year, as well as reducing the required local match. Members also expressed support for the comprehensive time study being conducted by the Compensation Board.