I spy: Changes in local police surveillance

Officer Ben Rexrode with the UVA Police Department has been wearing a body camera since July 2015.
Photo Eze Amos Officer Ben Rexrode with the UVA Police Department has been wearing a body camera since July 2015. Photo Eze Amos

When photos of Danville police popping the hoods of their patrol cars spread on social media last month, so did speculation that it was being done to shield dash cams from filming officers’ interactions with civilians. While that city’s department explained that their cars have had a continual issue with overheating and it has vowed to stop the hood popping, a look at hyper-local police camera usage shows that surveillance is more than meets the eye.

Every uniformed officer and security guard in the University of Virginia Police Department has worn a body camera since July 2015.

“When we started putting these out, there was no pushback,” says Officer Ben Rexrode, the department’s crime prevention coordinator. “The cameras can work both ways because they hold officers accountable, but they also protect us if something is being alleged.”

Highly criticized police shootings, such as the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, have pressured law enforcement agencies all over the nation to adopt this new body-worn technology. But Rexrode says that wasn’t what encouraged his department to try it out.

“Why wouldn’t we?” he says. “It’s a good thing to have.”

Cameras are clipped on an officer’s uniform over his heart. They stay on standby mode until a button in the unit’s center is double clicked. Then, the camera begins recording with audio and recalls the previous 30 seconds of soundless film.

It is the UVA Police Department’s policy that officers use the cameras during any enforcement action, such as a traffic stop, disturbance or suspicious incident, Rexrode says. Every recording is stored for 90 days and if it is being used in an investigation or court case, it will be saved longer.

While researching different camera models, drafting a policy and training officers to use the cameras takes a good deal of time, Rexrode says the toughest part for most departments is the financial commitment.

For 150 cameras and on-site training, UVA paid $363,000. A five-year contract for camera maintenance, licenses and storage costs an extra $150,000 per year.

At the Charlottesville Police Department, Lieutenant Tom McKean says officers are currently testing 40 body cameras before a full deployment, though that date is not set.

The transition to body cameras began under former Police Chief Timothy Longo, and the first cameras were deployed at the beginning of this year.

And CPD’s Lieutenant Steve Upman says there are no dashboard cameras currently in operation—their old system is no longer supported, and they are starting to spec out new systems.

Over at the Albemarle County Police Department, each patrol car is equipped with a dash cam that is always rolling, according to spokesperson Madeline Curott. At any time, officers can choose to record with audio, and both video and audio will automatically record when an officer activates the car’s lights and sirens or the car hits 85 mph.

The video is archived and entered into evidence if it’s part of an investigation. If not, it’s thrown out after 60 days. Video is reviewed quarterly and periodically by the department’s Office of Professional standards and patrol shift supervisors.

While those at the ACPD have been working on implementing body cameras for well over a year, Curott also notes the expense of the equipment and says they’re working on a policy pertaining to juveniles, schools and privacy issues. Next, patrol officers will start training on them.

But, from experience, Rexrode notes that the training can often take longer than one would expect, and a “grace period,” he says, is necessary for police to get used to wearing them.

“We’re not robots,” he says.

“When we started putting these out, there was no pushback,” says Officer Ben Rexrode, the UVA Police Department’s crime prevention coordinator. “The cameras can work both ways because they hold officers accountable, but they also protect us if something is being alleged.”