The Chapel Hill police are expanding their use of body cameras, while a new state law limiting who can see the footage has Carrboro reconsidering the equipment.
The Chapel Hill Police Department has 14 downtown foot and bike patrol officers using cameras and plans to add 58 more cameras in the next month or two, Lt. Josh Mecimore said.
The new cameras will go to all “front-line” officers, including patrol, K9, traffic and bike units, or about half the department’s current 107 sworn officers.
The cameras and related equipment cost about $600 each, with storage cost for the footage projected to run about $48,000 a year, Mecimore said.
In Carrboro, the Board of Aldermen is now questioning the value of cameras and plans to hold a public hearing Feb. 28 before deciding whether to move forward.
Carrboro police, community members, and elected officials spent more than two years crafting a policy governing the use of body-worn cameras, with an eye toward increasing transparency in policing.
That work was derailed last summer when House Bill 972 was signed into law. The statute, which took effect in October, limits who can view recordings from dashboard or body-worn cameras and prevents release of footage to the public unless ordered by a judge.
“Part of the reason people supported this in the first place was for more transparency,” said Mayor Pro Tem Michelle Johnson. “As we know, there’s a lack of trust between police departments and communities that have been historically harmed by criminal justice systems, so I think it is important for the community to understand where this is coming from and what has shifted with this.”
Alderman Damon Seils agreed.
“I think what was motivating a lot of people in the community behind this was the transparency piece, and it’s really upsetting that the General Assembly decided to eliminate that possibility for us,” Seils said. “Frankly, I’m not sure what we do now.”
If aldermen approve the purchase, the town would spend $66,000 to buy 36 cameras, enough to outfit all patrol, community service and school resource officers, and provide three extras for backup. The town would pay an additional $54,000 for data storage.
A video record
Police Chief Walter Horton said while he’s confident camera footage would “catch our officers doing everything right,” he’d appreciate having a video record of police encounters, especially if an incident involved an officer firing a weapon.
“I would love to have footage to back us up that we did right, but also if we did wrong,” Horton said. “We would handle it accordingly.”
However, he was critical of the new law, noting that in the event of a shooting by police, he wouldn’t be able to share the footage with town officials, even in a closed session.
“Our hands are kind of tied,” he said.
Frankly, I’m not sure what we do now.
Damon Seils, Carrboro alderman
Mecimore said Chapel Hill police have told a handful of people they could request to see footage they were involved in since the department started using the cameras downtown in October.
None made a request, he said, including the parent of a minor who chose not to make the request after talking with their son about the police interaction.
While the new state law prohibits releasing footage without a judge’s order, “our opinion is we err on the side of openness and allow people to review video they’re part of, and not fight a release if there is an order,” Mecimore said. “Some departments may not have that position.”
In Hillsborough, police have had 16 of 27 sworn officers using cameras since 2013.
The department plans to buy cameras for the others so they are available during special events or other interactions with the public, said Lt. Davis Trimmer. He did not know of any requests to see footage.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office does not have body cameras. Sheriff Charles Blackwood has said he’s not convinced the footage is always fair or helpful.
What the law says
A state law that took effect in October lets a police chief or sheriff decide whether people who are recorded by police, or their representatives, can see footage from a body or in-car camera. Someone who is denied access or a law enforcement agency that wants to release footage to the public can seek a court order.