The Carrboro Police Department is putting the finishing touches on a policy to govern body-worn cameras, wrapping up more than a year’s worth of work.
Police Capt. Chris Atack said he recently made another round of edits to the draft of the policy unveiled last month to address concerns raised by the Board of Aldermen and residents during a March 24 public hearing. While most of the edits were minor changes, Atack said he was also responding to a more controversial recommendation from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, backed by some aldermen, to require police to tell people when they are being recorded.
“That’s one of the issues that needs to be discussed further,” Atack said.
Atack said he worries the disclosure requirement would jeopardize officer safety. Some people become more agitated and violent when they know a camera is rolling, he said.
“I think there’s a difference of opinion there for a lot of reasons,” Atack said.
Camera purchase slated for summer vote
The police department has expressed interest in buying 42 cameras for an estimated $91,000, a price tag that includes software and other related costs, said Town Manager David Andrews. That would be enough for each of the department’s officers to wear one on his or her uniform plus a few replacements in case some cameras break.
The policy is in the homestretch after more than a year of talks between police, town officials and the ACLU-NC, said Alderman Damon Seils. Officials hope to incorporate funding for the cameras into next fiscal year’s budget, which the aldermen will vote on in June.
“I think I’ve learned that it’s really important that we not adopt new tools without having a real rigorous approach to the policy and regulatory framework around how these tools will be used, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve here,” Seils said.
“I think that’s why it’s taken so long to work this policy,” he added, “because we want it to reflect the town’s values, the community’s values, and not simply buy up a bunch of cameras and start using them without having sense for what they’re for and what the rules are.”
In December, President Barack Obama proposed making $75 million available to help police departments buy the cameras. Atack said the town is foregoing those funds because local leaders don’t want federal strings attached to Carrboro’s program.
Alderman Sammy Slade expressed concern about video footage falling into the hands of federal authorities. He said the policy should include a trigger mechanism so town leaders know immediately if federal authorities try to access Carrboro’s recordings. If that were to happen, Slade suggested town leaders might do away with the cameras altogether.
“There’s just a general atmosphere and trend in the federal government making use of people’s private information for whatever they do,” Slade said. “I just wouldn’t want this to be one more way in which they could gather this type of information.”
Police researching camera technology
Officer David Deshaies has been leading the department’s foray into the high-tech world of body cameras. Interest in the cameras surged following the fatal August shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. While Carrboro started examining the technology before the Brown shooting, Deshaies said the swell in demand has led to research around the technology and fueled growth in the body camera industry.
As a member of the Carrboro Police Department’s patrol division, Deshaies said he has been conducting trial runs with sample cameras given to the department by manufacturers. He has both drop- and water-tested the cameras in search of a one tough enough to withstand standard police work. In addition to durability, he also wants a camera that records high-quality sound and video and has enough battery life to survive a typical 12-hour shift.
“It’s really important you test these and look at them,” Deshaies said.
Deshaies said he has not settled on a model, but he is hoping to soon get a sample from the manufacturer that produces the department’s dashboard cameras, which he said capture crystal-clear images.
“The chief has had me working on this pretty much exclusively,” Deshaies said.
Draft policy lays out rules
The policy draft that the public commented on last month was 12 pages long. It set rules for how long footage should be stored, who is allowed to access files and even how cameras should be affixed to uniforms. Among the provisions:
- Police would be required to activate cameras during traffic stops and checkpoints, vehicle searches, foot chases and any interaction with people who have a history of being confrontational or violent, among other situations.
- When police walk onto private property, they would have to strike a balance between people’s privacy rights and the need for government intrusion. Officers would be allowed to notify property owners when they are being recorded and shut off cameras at their request.
- Supervisors would review recordings to assess officer performance. Noncriminal infractions would be treated as training opportunities. However, supervisors would be allowed to discipline officers if there was serious misconduct.
- Unauthorized erasing, altering or tampering with recordings would result in disciplinary action, including termination.
- Officers would be required to classify recordings according to the type of incident involved. Footage of incidents deemed less serious, such as general calls for service, would be held for 90 days, whereas more serious incidents, such as traffic stops and any use of force, would be held for 180 days. Police Chief Walter Horton told the Board of Aldermen last month that footage needed for court would be transferred to a disc to be stored as evidence.
Most concerns raised by the public and the Board of Aldermen about the draft required just minor adjustments and grammar fixes, Atack said.
Slade, for example, asked that the policy tell officers where on their uniform they should wear the cameras. The draft, which would have required officers to wear cameras in whatever way achieved “optimal” video and audio recordings, was not specific enough, Slade said.
ACLU-NC raises concerns
Recommendations from the ACLU-NC require a more thorough response, however. After the draft’s release, the group submitted a letter listing tweaks it wanted to see made. One request called for prohibiting police to surreptitiously record First Amendment-protected activities, citing political rallies specifically. Perhaps the most controversial point, however, was a suggestion that police tell people whom they come into contact with that they’re being taped.
Chris Brook, ACLU-NC’s legal director, said letting members of the public know they’re being recorded prevents body cameras from becoming surveillance tools and gives people greater control over their privacy.
Brook also said people behave better when they know a camera is on. “But if that information is not provided to the public, then I think the de-escalation that often accompanies body cameras might not be fully capitalized on,” he said, citing studies from California where officers’ use of force and complaints against police have dropped in communities that adopted body cameras.
Aldermen Seil and Slade voiced support for ACLU-NC’s recommendations after last month’s public hearing. But in a phone interview, Atack took issue with the proposed disclosure requirement, saying there is no legal prohibition on filming in public spaces.
“For us, if someone is getting out of hand, telling them they’re being recorded can be used to de-escalate the situation,” Atack said. “But if there’s a requirement that that information is thrown out initially,” then officers lose that tool.
For a printer-friendly version of this story, click here.