Amid calls from national agencies to equip police officers with body-worn cameras, Knightdale police are ironing out wrinkles in their own use of the new technology.
But as departments implement and test body-worn cameras, North Carolina law may make it difficult to use footage from the cameras to answer citizens’ concerns and requests, one of the reasons many agencies have recently turned to using body-worn cameras.
Knightdale police purchased 11 $900 cameras this summer and aren’t alone in the body-worn camera trend, although it is the only department in Wake County that uses them regularly.
Cary has a few cameras, but not enough that every officer has one. Rolesville and Wake Forest are testing models of different cameras, but haven’t made any large purchase of cameras. Apex police have talked about using cameras, but haven’t made any moves to test models or equip their officers.
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Raleigh, Wendell, Zebulon and Fuquay-Varina do not have body-worn cameras for their police officers.
Knightdale Police Chief Jason Godwin drafted several versions of a policy that sets general use standards for officers, but it does not specifically lay out when the video can or will be released to the public.
“My perspective is that every situation has got to be uniquely evaluated,” Godwin said. “We also want to be as transparent as we can possibly be.”
In some instances, the intention to be transparent may be hindered by North Carolina’s public records law, University of North Carolina School of Government Frayda Bluestein said.
“There’s a barrier to (transparency) because of the wording of the law,” she said. “These laws weren’t written with these kinds of records in mind.”
Bluestein examined the issue in a blog post on the School of Government’s website and cited two specific provisions in North Carolina law that may cause issues in disseminatng video gathered from body-worn cameras.
North Carolina law allows, but doesn’t require, law enforcement to release investigative records, which would include video gathered by body-worn cameras.
But another law, not under the public records statute, requires personnel records stay confidential.
If a police department wants to use body-worn camera footage as a training opportunity or for other professional purposes and entered it in a personnel file, it doesn’t have to be released to the public.
Godwin said while his department isn’t going to turn down a development opportunity for an employee, that wasn’t a primary motvation for getting the cameras.
Knightdale’s body-worn cameras are cheaper to purchase than to continue replacing $5,000 dashboard cameras in older vehicles.
Body cameras also provide more useful footage in many cases.
Ideally, Godwin would like all his patrol officers to have a body and dashboard camera.
National trend toward body cameras
After issues between police and residents came to a head in Ferguson, Mo. over differing accounts of how an officer interacted with teenager Mike Brown, several national agencies called for the implementation for body-worn cameras.
The Department of Justice sponsored a report created by officers across the country about the best practices for using body cameras.
The report lays out ways departments can successfully manage a body-worn camera effort while protecting privacy and staying transparent.
Chris Hagwood, a Garner police lieutenant, was one of the officers who helped create the report. He was the only officer from Wake County involved in the process.
Garner is currently testing body-worn cameras, but there isn’t a department-wide effort to oufit every officer yet.
“My take on it is the body-mounted cameras have this narrow field of view, so depending on where the camera is pointed it’s not going to capture everything from the officer’s point of view,” he said. “(A body-worn camera) might not be a true representation of what occurred from the officer’s point of view.”
The report Hagwood helped create decided the footage should be released even if it is “administratively complicated.”
“... with certain limited exceptions ... body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request – not only because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and oppenness ... ,” the report reads.
The report also advises police departments to create a broad disclosure policy that states exemptions that fit state requirements.
Knightdale’s policy does not have a section detailing exemptions or when footage can or should be released, but Godwin said he plans to interpret the law as broadly as possible.
“The public records law has a specific provision that allows for the (release of records) to maintain the public trust,” he said.
That part of the law would help make the decision in extreme situations, like the one in Ferguson.
In all situations, Town Manager Seth Lawless and the town attorney would assist in making the decision too.
Change is “likely”
So far, Knightdale police haven’t had any citizen requests to see footage gathered by body-worn cameras, Capt. Lawrence Capps said.
Capps manages the 11 officers’ cameras and the software that organizes the footage.
Officers can’t edit or delete footage. Capps can delete footage once it’s uploaded, in case an officer accidentally records personal time like a lunch or bathroom break.
But Capps cannot edit the footage and expects the department to have to use another program to do so, should they need to in order to release a video.
As Knightdale works out the best way to manage its cameras, Bluestein said she expects a change in the law to better govern how footage from body-worn cameras can be used or released.
“It’s likely that if people are doing this because of the focus on transparency, there be some sort of change (in law),” she said.
Changes like those usually come after some sort of court case and ruling on the subject, Bluestein said.