A trial run at body-worn police cameras could begin within months.
Police Chief Brandon Zuidema told the Town Council on Tuesday that with its approval, the trial period could begin in July or August. What remains: finishing touches to a policy for using the devices and final input from public partners.
If all goes as planned, a final review of the equipment and policy will take place in November, and a full roll-out of the program will occur in January 2018.
Tuesday’s discussion came about a year after Zuidema and the council first discussed body-worn cameras. He gave a general framework for what the department’s camera policy could look like and how Garner might pay for the cameras.
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“We’ve done, I think, a considerable amount of work and research and put some effort into preparing for a body-worn camera program,” Zuidema said.
The department does not use the cameras but did test them a couple of years ago.
Last fall, the Governor’s Crime Commission provided $24,500 for the purchase of about a dozen body-worn cameras.
The department expects to learn this summer if it will receive a two-year, $83,320 matching grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to purchase more cameras. The plan is for all 65 sworn officers to eventually have a camera, although not all of them would necessarily use them daily.
Zuidema said the WatchGuard brand is the best option for Garner police, primarily because the department already uses the company’s in-car camera system.
“It’s very similar to the body-worn microphone that the officers currently wear,” Zuidema said. “So one of the advantages is that we’ll basically replace our body microphone with that device, and then that will become the microphone for the in-car camera and for the body-worn camera.”
A policy, Zuidema said, is needed to ensure the department complies with the state statute on body-worn cameras.
It will come with an emphasis on officer safety, including language to protect the officers, but also with expectations of them.
“This policy is going to be built around trusting our officers to make good decisions,” Zuidema said. “We cannot write a policy that addresses every single situation; all we’d end up doing is writing a policy that would get violated because we didn’t think of something.”
Zuidema told the council the policy will require the use of the body-worn cameras virtually anytime police interact with the public in a work-related capacity. The department will encourage but not require officers to let people know when they are being recorded.
“Unfortunately, not everybody takes a police officer’s word at his word anymore, or her word,” Zuidema said. “Other than if we talk to someone to say, ‘Nice day today,’ if we’re going to write something down or put something in the computer after we talk to that person, we’re going to turn the camera on.”
In cases where someone requests to speak to police off camera, officers will have to determine for themselves if the value of the statement is greater than having a recording of it.
Police also plan to use the devices as a way for officers to review and evaluate their work.
Work in progress
Zuidema said N.C. House Bill 972, signed into law last year, lays out the rules for releasing both body-worn and in-car camera video.
“Essentially what that says is that in order for me to even consider releasing (video) upon a request, the request has to come from someone that is depicted on the video or is a representative of someone on the video,” he said.
Proposed legislation aims to change those rules.
“It’s really too early to tell where that’s headed,” Zuidema said. “We’re monitoring it closely.”
State laws does not detail circumstances in which officers should use the cameras. Zuidema hoped input from several community meetings would help police form that portion of the policy.
Councilman Ken Marshburn asked if any of the proposed legislation also addresses where and when police can record. Zuidema said he has yet to see a proposal. To this point, he said, “everything has been about release and disclosure.”
“That’s really left up to us and ultimately to me to try to implement a policy that is appropriate for Garner, that is appropriate to our police department, that is fair to our police officers and to our citizens,” Zuidema said.
Councilman Buck Kennedy asked Zuidema about his takeaway from the series of public meetings the department held. The chief said the meetings resulted in intelligent conversation with the community and gave police a chance to address some of the concerns of residents.
“I think we, law enforcement, and to some extent we, Garner, are generally good at explaining what we do, but we’ve not always historically been great at explaining why we do it,” Zuidema said. “We are certainly in a day and age today where that’s just unacceptable.”