Durham police are looking into video cameras that officers would wear and use to record encounters, such as traffic-stop searches, with citizens.
They already have video cameras in their patrol cars.
Police have tried out one other video-recording system, too – cameras attached to “electronic impulse devices,” commonly called by the brand name Tasers – and quit using it.
The cameras did not work very well, and even interfered with the Tasers’ reliability, according to an Aug. 22 memo from Police Chief Jose L. Lopez to City Manager Tom Bonfield.
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The decision, though, coming at a time when the police practices have come under close scrutiny, has drawn some criticism.
“It’s a really horrible choice by the chief of police,” attorney Scott Holmes said last week.
“I’ve asked (the police) a series of questions as part of my investigation to try to find out what was up,” Bonfield said last week. “I’m awaiting a report.”
Ian Mance, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, found out about the Taser cameras’ discontinuance in July when he asked for the video of an incident in which a Taser was used. A client, Sheila Alston, claims police used excessive force during an incident in which she, her son and her grandson were charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Those charges were dismissed after Mance and Holmes met with prosecutors on the family’s behalf. Alston subsequently filed complaints with the Police Department and with the Durham NACCP, which asked Mance to continue as the family’s attorney. In that capacity, Mance asked for the Taser video.
“I was fully expecting we would get the videos and I was surprised to learn the cameras had been ... taken off the Tasers,” said Mance, who complained to Bonfield several weeks ago.
His complaint was followed last week by one from Roland Staton, first vice president of the Durham NAACP.
“We are extremely concerned,” Staton wrote. “The affirmative move to dismantle Taser cameras, without any public knowledge or input ... is a barrier to restoring trust.”
The Taser cameras Durham police used were mounted on the weapons’ grip and, besides recording video, provided the Taser’s power through an attached battery, according to Lopez’s memo to Bonfield. Camera-equipped Tasers, Lopez wrote, had a 20 percent malfunction rate, usually failure to fire due to low battery power.
Lopez noted several other shortcomings, including bulk, cost and low video quality, all leading to the decision in May 2013 to stop using the cameras and replace them with a different kind of battery.
Bonfield said he inquired about Taser cameras in the other major North Carolina cities, and found none use them.
George H. Erwin, executive director of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said he had no idea how widespread the cameras’ use is. One law-enforcement agency that does use them, though, is the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.
Video recordings of Tasers’ use is “beneficial,” said Brian Jones, director of operations and development with the Sheriff’s Office.
Jones did not know how long the cameras have been in use. “There are always issues here and there” with equipment performance, he said, “but overall I think we’ve been very happy with the product.”
According to Lopez’ memo, though, several other large law-enforcement agencies have tried Taser cameras and discontinued their use, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Las Vegas police.
In Durham, though, documenting encounters between citizens and police is a sensitive issue. Staton, in a letter to Bonfield last week, asked that police resume using Taser cameras in the interest of “transparency and accountability.”
“We have not heard anything else yet,” Staton said. “I take that to mean he and his staff are going through whatever mechanisms they do.
“He’s proven to be deliberate and thorough,” Staton said.
“I’m still trying to understand more information about why we used them to begin with and, if they were disabled, why,” Bonfield said.
“I’m sure,” he said, “we’ll be hearing more about it.”