McAlester police plan a major upgrade in body cameras worn by police officers — and the U.S. Department of Justice is helping pay for it.

The city of McAlester has received a letter from the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, awarding the city a $46,733 federal grant, which requires a $46,789 match from the city.

Both the federal grant and matching funds are to be used to update and expand the use of body-worn cameras used by police, along with the necessary software.

“We’re getting from 47-to-48 new cameras,” McAlester Police Chief Gary Wansick said Thursday.

Justice Department guidelines require the program to be implemented before Sept. 30, 2022 — but Wansick would like to see the new body-cameras in place much sooner than the 2022 deadline.

“I would like to see it done in six months,” Wansick said. “I prefer not to have officers without body cameras.”

Wansick says the new body cams are needed, because many of the current ones are near the end of their effective usage. That’s resulted in some out of focus images, distorted sound and other issues.

New body cameras would have sharper focus and sound, along with other capabilities.

Wansick said the first body cameras used by McAlester police were first-generation equipment, but the newer ones will be second-generation, with more recent technological upgrades.

Those include high-definition images. Some also come with Wi-Fi capability that would allow live sound and images from an officer’s body camera to be transmitted back to police dispatchers, for example. Wansick said the newer body cameras are much more durable than the earlier models.

Another possibility is getting body cameras with either infrared or night-vision capabilities, or else mounted with the type of lenses that can will work better in low-lighting situations, said Wansick.

Before the new body cameras can be purchased, the city is required to go through a bidding process.

“We’re looking at two or three of the leading manufacturers,” said Wansick.

The project took a major step forward when city councilors voted unanimously during their Tuesday night meeting to accept the U.S. Justice Department grant for the Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program.

Prior to the city council vote, Wansick answered a series of questions about the police body cameras, primarily from Ward 3 Councilor Travis Read.

Read’s questions included “Are we getting any benefits?”

“I would say the camera has been a resounding success,” Wansick said. He said the fact that officers wear body cameras has reduced the number of complaints regarding police officers.

Read also questioned Wansick regarding Open Records requests for police body cam footage.

He asked “How much time is spent responding to Open Records requests from the media and from attorneys?”

Wansick said the officer who handles Open Records requests can respond to the requests while doing other tasks. It takes longer for the paralegal working for the city go through the footage and redact things determined not-releasable, the chief said.

Asked about what might be redacted, Watkins mentioned things such as juveniles, nudity or perhaps, a dead body. He said the state has issued guidelines covering the matter.

Body cameras also have the effect of helping police and many citizens be on their best behavior.

“I know if I’m on-camera, I’m going to act even better,” Wansick said.

Wansick is hopeful another funding source might be found to help provide the city’s portion of the matching funds to go along with the federal grant. He said federal funds could not be used for the matching money, because the Department of Justice grant is already being utilized as the primary funding source. However, the city is looking into the possibility of applying for grants from state funds or from other sources.

Police officers initially had concerns when they first started wearing the body cameras — but that has changed, Wansick said.

“The consensus now is they are a good thing,” he said.

Law enforcement officers aren’t the only one who have gotten used to police wearing body cameras.

“The public now expects this,” said Wansick.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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