Police patrolling downtown on foot and bike will add body cameras to their toolbelt this fall as part of a pilot program, Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue said.
The department has moved slowly to buy body cameras, investigating its options for nearly two years to find a model that works well and isn’t a waste of taxpayer money, spokesman Lt. Josh Mecimore said. The final tests on several models were completed this spring.
The department is using a small Governor’s Crime Commission grant to buy up to 15 cameras, Blue said.
“We’ll be starting there and doing much more of an in-the-field, top-to-bottom pilot program, and then evaluate how we grow from there,” he said.
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More information will be available as the program starts, he said, but it could last up to a year.
The move comes as a new state law takes effect Oct. 1. The law lets the police chief or sheriff decide whether people who are recorded by police, or their representatives, can see footage from a body or in-car camera. Someone who is denied access or a law enforcement agency that wants to release footage to the public can seek a court order.
What happens to the footage was a hotly debated issue in Raleigh, Blue said, and will influence the department’s draft policy.
Video storage is the biggest cost in adding body cameras, Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown told her City Council in March. The council approved buying body cameras for 600 officers over the next three years.
Deck-Brown estimated the plan would cost an estimated $1.25 million for the first year and $5.2 million over five years.
Durham leaders have also been considering cameras and, until the new law, had been finalizing rules for releasing footage. The issue of buying cameras could return to the Durham City Council by Oct. 1.
Carrboro also is reviewing its draft policy, Alderman Damon Seils said.
The town and its police department have been working with the American Civil Liberties Union for a couple of years to craft a policy that benefits officers and citizens. Seils met last week with officials from the ACLU and Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition to talk about the new law, which he said may have jeopardized the town’s goal of ensuring transparency and accountability.
“I want to understand what the legislation allows and does not allow us to do,” Seils said.
The Board of Aldermen could decide this fall whether to shelve a planned purchase, he said.
The law hasn’t changed camera opponent Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood’s mind. While body cameras can document officer conduct – the public use of which is limited by state and federal personnel rules – they do not serve well as evidence, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office also has to consider the cost of video storage, he said, the public’s right to privacy and the financial constraints of buying and maintaining both body and in-car cameras.
“You have to decide do you have a problem that needs to be addressed and if body cams are the best means to address it,” Blackwood said. “What we decided we would do here in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office is do our job the best way we can with the equipment we have, and when we realize a problem that we don’t have equipment to solve, we’ll try to address it with whatever equipment is available.”
Hillsborough residents and officers have responded positively to body cameras, Lt. Davis Trimmer said. He’s not aware of any requests to view the body camera footage, but the Orange County District Attorney’s Office asks for it on a regular basis, he said.
The Hillsborough Police Department has equipped 16 patrol officers with body cameras since 2013, Trimmer said. The 27-member department uses them to document evidence collection and investigate public complaints.
“It’s a very good tool. When deployed properly and used properly, it can give you a good viewpoint,” he said.