Of cops and cameras: Body cams imminent for Charlottesville police

Charlottesville police will soon be wearing body cameras. This one is by Taser. Photo courtesy Taser. Charlottesville police will soon be wearing body cameras. This one is by Taser. Photo courtesy Taser.

Even before a police officer’s fatal encounter with an unarmed teen in Ferguson last summer, the Charlottesville Police Department had already budgeted for body-worn cameras for its officers, a move that has gained widespread support—except, perhaps, from the officers themselves.

City Police Chief Tim Longo got $450,000 in the fiscal year 2014 budget for the cams for a couple of reasons. “Our in-car video system is at end of life,” he said in an e-mail. And dashcams have a limited frame of reference, while body cameras offer the officer’s point of view and follow his movements during a critical incident. Also, said Longo, “I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Once the camera contract is awarded, CPD will finish its policy for their use based largely on the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) guidelines, and vet those recommendations with organizations such as the Rutherford Institute, the Virginia ACLU and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said Longo, the 2013-2014 VACP president.

The ACLU typically doesn’t support government cameras, but is open to the idea of cops wearing them. “Police body cams can help (re)build trust between law enforcement and the community, protect police from liability, and provide the public with a tool to assure accountability,” said Claire Gastagna, ACLU of Virginia’s executive director, in an e-mailed statement. “Sometimes, government cameras can be a good thing, but only if the right policies are in place to guide their purchase and use.”

In California, the body-cam-wearing Rialto Police Department conducted a one-year study and found that citizen complaints of officer misconduct fell by 87.5 percent, while uses of force by such officers fell by 59 percent when the cameras were on.

“They’re going to be implemented,” said civil rights watchdog John Whitehead at the Rutherford Institute. “The key is transparency.”

Whitehead believes cops wearing cameras should give citizens they encounter a sort of mini-Miranda rights, warning that anything they say can and will be used against them.

He’s concerned that in some instances across the country, police have cut off the cameras. In Duluth, police started using the cameras in July and refused to release footage when an officer killed a knife-wielding man. “The fact that police have turned them off or fight the defendant’s access, that’s a problem,” said Whitehead.

Whether the footage is a public record is another issue. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said cop-cam video would not be released to the public and would only be available through criminal and civil court proceedings, the L.A. Times reported. Whereas in Seattle, police held a hackathon to seek help in redacting faces and license plates so more footage could be released, according to Slate.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police guidelines advise officers to activate the cameras when making contact with a person and record the entire conversation. If the officer is interrupted for some reason, such as talking to a confidential informant, the IACP suggests noting that the camera is being shut off and why, and when it comes on again, stating that the camera has been restarted to avoid accusations that the recording has been edited.

At the end of the shift, everything on the camera must be downloaded to establish a chain of custody, should the recordings be used as evidence, said the IACP. Some states determine how long the recordings are kept; otherwise, it’s up to the department to set policy.

Albemarle police were among the first in Virginia to try out the cameras, and two years later, they’re “still trying to decide if it’s a good fit,” said spokesperson Carter Johnson. “It’s something we’re actively looking into and moving forward with the conversation.”

Unlike Charlottesville, Albemarle is looking at the cameras as an extension rather than replacement of dashcams, she said. And to be determined is the department’s policy for body cam use, and inevitably, how much they’ll cost and where the money will come from, said Johnson.

Taser and Vievu are the largest body-cam manufacturers in the country, with more than 1,200 and 3,900 law enforcement agencies using their products, respectively.

Both offer the option of direct purchase of the camera and storage software, or departments can pay a lower cost and a monthly fee. For example, the Vievu Solution can be had for $899, including the camera and cloud storage, or the camera can be purchased for $199 and storage for $55 a month. Taser’s website says cameras can cost between $399 and $599, with storage costs ranging from $15 to $99 a month.

While many favor body cams, one group is perhaps not so keen on the idea: police officers themselves. “A lot of cops don’t want them,” said Whitehead.

Mike Farruggio, a former Charlottesville police sergeant, calls them a “double-edged sword” for an occupation that’s already highly stressful. “Having a camera is that much more of an imposition,” he said, one that comes with more responsibility and no extra pay. “It’s an added stressor to an already stressful job.”

And although the overwhelming majority of cops do a good job every day, said Farruggio, the message seems to be, “We don’t trust you so we have to put a camera on you.”

Farruggio, who worked as a police officer for 27 years before he retired in 2013, said, “I think most officers feel the way I do.”

Police certainly remain under public scrutiny. Wes Bellamy, president of the Black Professional Network of Charlottesville, demanded cop cams at a contentious City Council meeting last month, and he’s leading a statewide March for Justice to Richmond January 24 to seek changes in how crimes by police are investigated and prosecuted, as well as cameras on officers and police cars. Body cameras in Charlottesville are “not the end all be all,” he said, “but it’s a step in the right direction.”

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