The Board of Aldermen got its first look this week at a body-camera policy for police officers that the Orange County public defender called “a model for the state.”
James Williams described the policy and the process for its development thoughtful and deliberate. One issues that still needs to be worked out is how the policy affects school resource officers and the recording of children at school, he said.
The policy is the product of a year’s work for Alderman Damon Seils, Police Chief Walter Horton and Chris Brook, legal director for the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Although North Carolina’s one-party consent law would allow the officers to use the cameras without disclosing their use to suspects or witnesses, the policy and its authors advocate that officers routinely disclose the cameras’ use.
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“By defaulting to this disclosure, we believe that the presence of the cameras will help to de-escalate some situations,” Brook said.
The ACLU supports body-worn cameras, Brook said, “with the proper regulatory architecture ensuring transparency, accountability and privacy.” The policy needs to have four key elements to satisfy those requirements, he said:
▪ A reasonable retention schedule
▪ Stated proper usages
▪ Defaulting to informing the public
▪ Prohibition of surreptitious recording
That last one – banning secret recording – was a critical piece for Alderman Sammy Slade. He asked that the policy articulate that the recordings made are for local use only and cannot be transferred to state of federal law enforcement or security agencies.
“After Ferguson, people are realizing the value of body-worn cameras and the transparency they might offer,” Slade said, advising caution before the program is launched. “It can be a slippery slope.”
Among the most common concerns is what happens to the recordings. Carrboro’s policy features will require that the recordings be deleted from systems after a fixed number of days, depending on the situation recorded, unless a prosecution is likely.
In that case, said Horton, the recording will be burned to a DVD or flash drive and secured (as is done for other forms of evidence).
The policy spells out time periods that range from 30 days of retention for equipment checks or accidental activations up to 180 days for DWI cases, custodial arrests or any use of force.
Unlike 911 calls, the recordings will not be treated as public records that are routinely released to the news media and the public after a short time. Recordings from body-worn and dashboard cameras will be released only when required by a court order.
The aldermen expressed concern about whether or not the records retention schedule matches long it takes for court cases to be heard. Horton said the policy anticipates that problem.
“I’ve seen DWI cases that took five years to get to court,” the chief said. These cases will benefit from the records being copied for evidence storage and then secured, he said.
The policy was well received by the board, which thanked Seils for his long hours working on a policy that sets a high standard for community policing. Seils has said developing this policy was among his most rewarding assignments as an elected official.
Alderwoman Michelle Johnson was supportive, but wanted to offer the community her assurance that the new cameras and the policy itself, while important, are not comprehensive. “This is not the only intervention that the town is doing about racial profiling,” she said.
At an NAACP forum in January, Horton said his department is drafting a policy that would require drivers to sign a form, not just give a verbal OK, for police to conduct a vehicle search without evidence a crime has occurred.
From 2002-13, the Carrboro Police Department made 30,528 stops and 2,010 searches, while the Chapel Hill Police Department made 65,460 stops and 2,427 searches, a UNC study found.
According to data shown at the forum, black drivers constituted 21 percent of Carrboro traffic stops but 7.9 percent of Carrboro’s population. Black drivers constituted 26 percent of Chapel Hill traffic stops but 8.6 percent of Chapel Hill's population.
The body-camera policy will be reviewed at least once more before adoption. Town Manager David Andrew said he expects to bring the policy back to the board for its second reading in June, during the budget process, so the board can discuss purchasing the cameras and training officers.