Long before the nationwide protests over the use of force by police in Ferguson, Mo., New York and elsewhere, several police departments in the Triangle had already begun testing body cameras that would record the interactions of officers with the public.
Police departments in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Garner and Knightdale and the Wake County Sheriff's Office have tested the devices or plan to in the near future. Hillsborough purchased nine of the cameras for its 16 full-time officers in early July.
The devices are essentially small surveillance cameras that officers clip to their uniforms, recording images that can later be downloaded to a computer. Local departments say they're testing not only how the cameras work but also developing policies and protocols for using them, such as deciding when to turn them off.
"What happens if a citizen requests that the camera be turned off?" said Hillsborough Police Chief Duane Hampton. "What if the officer is in someone's private home?"
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Hampton says his officers began testing body cameras about two years ago when the devices were new to the market.
"It was just one of those things that made a lot of sense at the time," he said. "We could document specific incidents and validate complaints against officers."
Hampton said from the outset the department wanted to use the cameras as an internal tool "to make sure we were doing things the right way." He said his officers are "still in a how-to-use-them phase."
Transparency and training
The Carrboro Police Department began exploring the use of cameras last spring as a means of helping settle disagreements, said spokesman Capt. Chris Atack.
"Our experience has been that it is difficult to be able to definitively prove or disprove certain things during an interaction with a citizen," Atack said. "Having a more objective record of such interactions will go a long way towards being transparent and defending officers from frivolous complaints and also substantiating valid complaints."
Atack said cameras will allow officers to observe their behavior during encounters with citizens.
"This growth and development of officers is another important reason behind our thinking," he said.
Mike Meno of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said body cameras could be a "real win-win for both the police and the communities they serve."
Meno said the ACLU's biggest concern is making sure local police departments have safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the technology.
"That includes privacy rights, but also making sure the technology will provide accountability and oversight for both the police and the community," he said.
Not sold on cameras
Not every department is sold on body cameras. The Durham County Sheriff's Office and Raleigh Police Department are among those that don't have plans yet to acquire them.
Raleigh police officers have discussed the possibility of getting cameras over the past year, said spokesman Jim Sughrue. While the department is likely to develop a pilot project to test the devices, additional work remains before tests can take place, he said.
In particular, Sughrue said, more research is needed to determine whether the cameras will interfere with people who want to speak to officers confidentially and whether the information gathered by the cameras can be used as evidence in court .
Even departments that are interested in using the cameras are taking their time adopting them. Garner police Lt. Chris Hagwood has been researching body cameras for more than a year while trying to determine how to best integrate them into the police department.
Hagwood contributed to a U.S. Department of Justice report created by officers across the country about the best practices of using cameras. He said Garner has tested a couple of models to find out which of those would be most effective.
The Garner department spent a great deal of time researching the devices, seeking advice from police departments that already have them as well as testing and evaluating the equipment, said spokesman Lt. Chris Clayton.
"Anytime you create policies about new technology, the thing you want to do is a lot of research," Clayton said. "For instance, we wanted to make sure that we're not buying equipment that's obsolete in six months."
Durham police intend to begin testing the devices "in the near future," said spokeswoman Kammie Michael. She said several officers have volunteered to test different models.
Chapel Hill police have tested several models, too, but haven't decided on one yet, said spokesman Lt. Josh Mecimore. He noted that Chapel Hill, like many police departments, already has dash-mounted cameras in its patrol cars.
"This means that the vast majority of our interactions with the public are already captured on camera," he said.
President Barack Obama endorsed the use of police body cameras in the wake of the rioting in Ferguson, as a means of improving police relations with the public.
Early last week, Obama announced that the federal government would provide a 50 percent match to help states and local police agencies purchase body cameras and related equipment. Overall, the proposed $75 million investment over three years could help purchase 50,000 cameras.
That was good news for Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who says the use of body cameras by officers provides greater transparency, which is good for both his deputies and the public. Harrison said his deputies have been testing the devices off and on for about three years.
Harrison said the testing period allowed him and his command staff to determine the devices have limitations. The camera does not always record what the officer sees, he noted, and can fall off in cases where a suspect takes off running and the officer follows.
Still, Harrison hopes to soon acquire cameras for members of his special operations and patrol units.
"I'm a believer of them," he said. "When I heard the president was putting up money for them, I called the Governor's Crime Commission and told them I wanted to be the first in line to get some of that money."
Staff writer Jonathan M. Alexander contributed to this report.