Chapel Hill News

Police body cameras coming to Carrboro

This small, lapel-mounter body camera worn by Hillsborough police is connected by a wire to a battery supply in the right breast pocket which doubles as an on/off switch by tapping the battery box.
This small, lapel-mounter body camera worn by Hillsborough police is connected by a wire to a battery supply in the right breast pocket which doubles as an on/off switch by tapping the battery box. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Body-worn cameras are coming to the Carrboro Police Department, despite concerns about a new state law limiting how footage of police interactions can be released.

With two members absent, the Board of Aldermen voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve a policy governing the use of police body and dashboard cameras. The board will consider a funding request for $66,000 to buy 36 cameras and an additional $54,000 for data storage during the budget process later this year.

Mayor Lydia Lavelle voted for the cameras.

“I also recognize it’s not a perfect policy. Our hands are little bit tied by the state,” she said. “I think we’re being really imaginative in how we’re trying to craft our policy.”

Alderman Sammy Slade cast the lone opposition vote, saying the state statute thwarts the town’s attempt to bring greater transparency to policing.

Police, elected officials, attorneys and civil rights advocates had worked for more than two years to draft the town’s policy, before the General Assembly enacted the new law last October.

The state statute gives heads of law enforcement agencies discretion to show body and dash cam footage to someone whose image or voice is depicted in the recording, or their representative. Full release of the footage is only allowed with a court order.

Alderman Damon Seils noted revisions to the town’s policy encourage the chief of police to err on the side of disclosure any time someone asks to see camera footage.

“There does seem to be some flexibility in the statute for the chief to make decisions about disclosure,” Seils said. “The idea is, we want to disclose whenever we’re asked to disclose, unless there’s a really clear reason why it shouldn’t be disclosed.”

Even with the state restrictions in place, Police Chief Walter Horton said the cameras are a worthwhile purchase.

“I am for the (cameras), but they’re not going to be the end-all solution that’s going to answer every single question,” he told the board. “If you’ve seen some of the footage released, you’re going to have issues with the angles, lighting, all kinds if things. But I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. If we do have an incident, I want something there, whether it’s audio, or video, or a combination of both, to show what happened.”

Board members asked Horton to return in one year with a report evaluating the roll-out of the cameras, including data on how many times footage has been requested and whether the footage has proved useful as a training tool.

The board also voted to ask state legislators to lobby for revisions to the statute that would give local governing bodies the ability to view and release body and dash cam footage in incidents involving use of force by police.

Other departments

The Chapel Hill Police Department has 14 downtown foot and bike patrol officers using body cameras and plans to add 58 more cameras this spring to cover about half the department's current 107 sworn officers.

In Hillsborough, 16 of 27 sworn officers have used cameras since 2013. The department plans to buy cameras for the others so they are available during special events or other interactions with the public.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office does not have body cameras. Sheriff Charles Blackwood has said he’s not convinced the footage is always fair or helpful.

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