Some city leaders say they still support buying body cameras for police officers despite concerns about limited access to footage under a new state law.
“My position is it is better to have them than not to have them,” Mayor Bill Bell said. Councilman Eddie Davis also said he supports moving forward.
Others, including Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece, said they want more information to determine whether cameras are still a good idea.
Johnson has conerns about limited public access but said studies suggest just having cameras reduces police use of force and complaints against officers.
“People just tend to behave better when they know that they are being recorded,” Johnson said. “I think the question is, does that benefit outweigh the problems that we are going to face with actual transparency given this new legislation.”
On Monday Gov. Pat McCrory signed controversial legislation regulating the release of recordings from body and dashboard cameras. The new law will supercede the policy that Durham had been working on.
The state law allows people who are recorded, or their representatives, to see footage if the police chief gives them access.
If access is denied, the subject can seek a court order to see the video. A court order also will be required for the general release of police camera footage.
In February, the Durham City Council planned to vote on buying up to 520 body worn cameras. The council delayed the purchase due to concerns about the Police Department’s draft policy, including the circumstances under which the videos would be released to the public.
Bell called on those with concerns, specifically Reece, Johnson and council member Steve Schewel, to review the policy and come back with some recommendations for a revised policy. The discussion was furthered delayed when City Manager Tom Bonfield wanted to wait until he hired a new police chief. Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis started June 6.
Bonfield expects the body camera issue to come before the City Council again by Oct. 1.
“Hopefully sooner,” he said.
He said the Police Department, under its new leadership, is evaluating a couple different body camera products.
On the policy side, City Attorney Patrick Baker said his office is reviewing the legislation and trying to figure out how it affects his job.
In the past, Baker said, when he advised the City Council on whether to settle a lawsuit, he could show members dash camera footage during a closed session. Now, it’s unclear whether he will be able to view dash and body camera footage and what he can share with the council.
“It is kind of an odd situation,” Baker said. “There may need to be some clean up as this legislation goes forward.”
After working with then Interim Chief Larry Smith and Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh, Schewel, Reece and Johnson came up with a policy that they felt like struck a balance between transparency and accountability, Schewel said.
Under their proposal, footage could be released by the police chief, the city manager, or the City Council if they determined there was a compelling public interest.
Schewel said he is leaning toward supporting the purchase of body cameras, “given the police chief that we have now and her commitment to transparency,” but still wants to get more information from city officials.