Get ready for your close-up. By the end of the year, your next encounter with a Durham Police officer might be captured on a black device the size of a pager—a body camera—staring at you from the officer’s shirt. Other Triangle law enforcement agencies have tested the cameras and the Hillsborough Police Department and Cary PD motorcycle unit currently use them. Across the country, it’s been estimated that one in six police departments have tried them.But there are major concerns on both sides of the lens. Citizens worry about privacy and access. Police worry about costs, the manpower required to review the footage and the specter of grisly crime scenes popping up on YouTube. Welcome to the Wild West chapter of the Body-Cam Era, where questions outnumber answers, and average patrol officers are morphing into walking surveillance robocops. The train has left the station, and the arrival of its digital cargo—the good, the bad and the ugly— is inevitable. “Like any new technology [body cams] have costs, benefits and potential pitfalls that people will have to evaluate,” said Eddie Caldwell, spokesman for the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association. The national call for body cams comes after a rash of police shootings, mostly of unarmed black men, ignited national unrest. Until now, investigations into such incidents have overwhelmingly ended in cops’ exonerations. Last December, in response to what he called the “simmering distrust” between police and minority communities, President Obama announced a plan to allocate $75 million to equip 50,000 police officers with body cams, which range from $100 to $1,200 apiece. The cameras are generally affixed to an officer’s shirt, and activated by a button or sliding device. The encrypted footage is downloaded to a server—the biggest manufacturers offer their own cloud-based software—and then uploaded to police computers. The original video typically remains saved for 30 days, and the administrator receives a notification before the cloud deletes it. In North Carolina, the debate over body cams has spawned a race of sorts between individual police agencies and the General Assembly. Right now, the police are ahead. Last month, two bills that would have put body cams on about 60 percent of North Carolina officers— including those in the biggest cities such as Raleigh and Durham—died in the House. In their place, a pair of smaller bills, written with haste, moved to the Senate. House Bill 811, which received a unanimous vote, will give criminal justice experts a year to study the issue. The other piece of legislation, HB 713, is more controversial. It would allow heads of policing agencies to publicly release certain videos in the interest of public safety (read: if a citizen is shot). The release would not require the consent of the officer who fired the gun. “I felt like we had to do this now, in case we had an incident,” said Rep. John Faircloth, R–Guilford, a former police chief and the bill’s primary sponsor. But at least two detractors in the House say the bill is flawed. If a police chief declines to release a video, the footage would be classified as “investigative” material and shielded from the public. “The obvious conflict is that law enforcement is the sole decider for whether to release the video,” said Duane Hall, D–Wake, who voted against the bill. Hall is in favor of body cams, but wants them publicly accessible. “I fear that the public won’t have faith in the system if law enforcement can release incriminating but not exculpatory evidence.” Some lawmakers suggest that independent agents, such as judges, should determine which videos should be released. And then there’s the question of when the cameras should be turned on. Some civil liberties advocates say that cameras should be rolling for an officer’s entire shift. But that could overstretch agencies’ pocketbooks even more. The alternate fear is that officers would neglect to turn on the cameras prior to responding to a call. A study of New Orleans police found that even when cameras were present in police cars, they were only turned on in about a third of use-of-force incidents. For citizens, the goal is transparency and accountability. Body cams could tame violent or trigger-happy police officers, sometimes prone to lying on the witness stand. Proponents point to Albuquerque, where a police camera capturing the fatal shooting of an unarmed man led to murder charges against two cops. (The city’s police chief initially claimed the shooting was justified.) In reality, however, cameras will likely be more of a boon for law enforcement. Soon, cops will have a glut of evidence showing crimes committed in real time. Don’t be surprised by an uptick in convictions. Last December in Randolph County, for example, a body cam captured a suspect attacking a sheriff’s deputy with a knife. Body cams could also protect police from false brutality claims and avoid costly litigation.
DPD began conversations about adopting body cams in early 2013, before events drove the issue to the national fore. For 90 days ending last month, DPD outfitted eight officers with cameras donated by two venders, Vievu, based in Seattle, and Digital Ally in Lenexa, Kansas. The resulting footage is available for current criminal cases.The department plans to choose a model by the end of the summer, and then pursue funds. Before that, DPD will seek the public’s input through a series of “listening sessions,” the first of which was held Monday at the Durham Public Schools Staff Development Center on Hillandale Road. “We’re on this journey together,” DPD Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh Sr. told the crowd of about 75 citizens, including two City Council members. A lengthy series of comments from the audience showed overwhelming support of the body-cams. Still, many attendees voiced concerns, mostly about privacy. “If a person is being recorded, what is going to stop that person from being on the six o’clock news,” one woman asked. Indeed, the chief concern for citizens is privacy. What happens if a woman alleges being strip-searched by an officer? What happens if a patrol officer is called to accompany a victim to a hospital? The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which specializes in privacy matters, has publicly supported body cams, provided that safeguards are built in. The organization says officers should inform citizens when they’re being recorded, and establish opt-out situations involving private homes, victims and people who report crimes. The group also wants to ensure that cameras don’t capture protected activity such as political protests and religious services, and that individuals recorded on video have access to it. Law enforcement’s biggest concern is financial. Who pays? Equipment and storage could set an agency back hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Oakland’s police department, for example, has nearly five years of bodycam data, requiring 190 terabytes of data space. That’s the equivalent of more than 40,000 DVDs filled to capacity. John Midgette, the executive director of the NC Police Benevolent Association, called the potential for storage overload “a nightmare.” Law enforcement also worries about the time-suck of reviewing footage, envisioning a tsunami of public-records requests. Redaction gets complicated. Consider, for example, a situation in which an officer leaves the camera rolling during a bathroom break. Last fall in Washington State, a records request for “any and all video” filmed by the state police sparked uproar. The state patrol said that proper redaction would take 42 years. At least 14 other states are considering body cam bills, and the debates are just as contentious. In Minnesota, citizens are decrying a bill that would quickly dispose of footage not under criminal investigation. In Washington State, one bill would preserve only footage that is part of an officermisconduct investigation, while a rival bill would preserve only footage that is part of a criminal investigation. In Missouri, the governor said that if body-cam footage weren’t exempt from the state’s sunshine laws, it would create “a new era of voyeurism and entertainment televisions at the expense of Missourians’ privacy.”
Will body cameras achieve the goal of police accountability? There is evidence to suggest so. The White House’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing cites a study out of Rialto, California’s police department suggesting that officers wearing cameras had 87.5 percent fewer use-of-force incidents and 59 percent fewer complaints. “When officers tell citizens that the cameras are recording their behavior, everyone behaves better,” the taskforce said.But there are skeptics. Arizona State University criminologist Michael D. White questions whether the Rialto study proves anything. Was the drop in citizen complaints due to a change in police behavior or public behavior? Was intimidation a factor? The results, he said, “could be a fluke.” Other criminologists say that video evidence is not fully objective. An officer and citizen might have different interpretations based on what occurred 30 seconds before the camera started rolling. Police are aware of the concerns. “This is not a magic bullet; this is not the be-all, end-all,” said DPD Deputy Chief Marsh. He used the analogy of instant replay at sporting events. “Sometimes [the officials] just don’t come to a conclusion,” he said. It should also be noted that less than 20 percent of police calls are for felonies, and use of force occurs in just 1 percent of police-citizen contacts. Most service calls involve a lot of social work—a domestic spat, a mental breakdown, a car accident. During conversations with victims and witnesses, even if the cop shows compassion, the camera strapped to his or her chest could make the situation uncomfortable. Ironically, body-cams could diminish trust. Advocates want to ensure police don’t review footage prior to writing an incident report. Otherwise, officers could lie in ways the video evidence would not contradict, or otherwise allow the footage to influence his or her memory. (Police might not agree with that theory. In a police forum blog titled “10 body camera patrol tips to keep attorneys off your back,” the author writes, “Never write your narrative without viewing the video. Any contradictions will crush your case. Think like a defense attorney.”) DPD doesn’t prohibit patrol officers from reviewing dash-cam footage before writing incident reports but acknowledges the need to consider this tactic when writing its body-cam policy. Meanwhile, expect a big payout for camera manufacturers. Since the White House’s announcement to arm officers with cams, Taser International’s stock price has quintupled. A recent Associated Press investigation revealed that Taser has covered airfare and hotel stays for police chiefs who speak at promotional events, and hired chiefs as consultants—sometimes just months after their cities signed contracts. The true effects of body cams are yet to be seen. But writing for The Atlantic, Intel engineer Melissa Gregg and Guardian columnist Jason Wilson raised concerns about whether the technology will solve the root issue at play: racial profiling. Citing the case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man whose death resulting from a police chokehold was caught on video but didn’t lead to an indictment, the authors opined, “Cameras won’t change the disproportionate presence of young black men in the criminal justice system, from arrest rates to incarceration. If anything, they create yet another avenue for corporate profiteering from that state of affairs.”