Candid cameras: Albemarle police hear citizen concerns on body cams

Lieutenant Mike Wagner is evaluating body cams for Albemarle police and getting stakeholders on board.
Staff photo Lieutenant Mike Wagner is evaluating body cams for Albemarle police and getting stakeholders on board. Staff photo

In January, C-VILLE reported that body cams were “imminent” for Charlottesville police. Nine months later, city cops still are not sporting the cameras and the University Police Department became the first local law enforcement agency to outfit its officers. The Albemarle County Police Department is moving toward the cameras as well, and approximately 50 people attended a citizen forum September 15.

“I think the community was a bit startled at how complex this issue is,” says Albemarle’s chief, Colonel Steve Sellers. His department piloted the cameras last winter, and is working to get the policy right. “Some departments rushed into it,” he says. “They’re regretting it now.”

A key consideration is when the cameras get activated. Privacy of victims is a big concern, as is footage shot in a home that is not a part of a criminal investigation or that includes a child.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford stressed the importance of policy so “we all know what the policy is and when an officer is supposed to activate them and when they’re supposed to turn them off.”

Some wondered about privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and whether their neighbors can request video from the night the police showed up at their door.

“These videos are a public record,” says John Blair with the county attorney’s office. But the average citizen’s ability to access them could be limited under the criminal investigative files exemption, he says.

Some attending wanted to know if they could have a private conversation with an officer without being recorded. Richard Lloyd, Republican candidate for the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, said, “If you want to have a private conversation with an officer, you should be able to do that.”

Albemarle resident Fred Scott wanted to know if there was a problem in the community with police use of force or was Albemarle doing it “because everyone is doing it?”

Other police departments have discovered that everyone behaves better when they know they’re being recorded, and citizen complaints about officer misconduct and incidents of police use of force both dropped dramatically, said Lieutenant Mike Wagner.

For example, the Rialto Police Department in California conducted a one-year study after its cops started wearing the cameras, and found that citizen complaints of officer misconduct fell by 87.5 percent, while uses of force by officers fell by 59 percent.

In the current draft policy, an officer would have to account for why the camera was turned off, said Sellers. He also said that for every dollar spent on body cameras, “we can save the county $4 in litigation.”

Sellers sought buy-in from his officers. “Overwhelmingly the vast majority wants them,” he said. He compares the cameras to equipment like protective vests that no one relishes wearing on a 90-degree day. “Officers really do want to do the right thing,” he said. “And these provide them some protection” from unwarranted complaints.

The cameras themselves are not the big ticket expenditure, it’s the storage, said Sellers. He’s anticipating spending around $45,000 for the body cams, while the storage of the video will be about $66,000 a year. He said he’ll also need a person to be in charge of the data and will include that in his budget request to the Board of Supervisors this fall.

As beneficial as the technology can be, Sellers warned about what it couldn’t do: “Body cams don’t measure the hair on the back of a police officer’s neck when he hears someone coming up behind him. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It helps tell the story, but it doesn’t tell the whole thing.”

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