Durham News

Durham City Council approves purchase of police body cameras

cseward@newsobserver.com

Durham police officers could start testing body cameras as soon as next month after a vote by the City Council Monday night.

The 5-2 vote came less than 24-hours before an officer-involved shooting Tuesday afternoon McDougal Terrace housing complex.

The city will spend $1.4 million for 530 cameras, cloud storage and related equipment for sworn officers at the rank of captain and below.

Mayor Bill Bell, Eddie Davis, Cora Cole-McFadden, Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel voted for the purchase, saying cameras would help provide answers after officer-involved shootings or questionable use of force.

Members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson voted against the purchase, expressing concern about transparency, surveillance and the effectiveness of the footage.

On Dec. 12, the Police Department plans to issue up to 12 cameras and train a District 1 squad. Another 30 cameras will be issued – for the trainer program – around Jan. 4. Distribution to patrol officers will run from Jan. 9-27. Then cameras would be issued to specialty units through April.

In February, the council delayed a vote due to concerns about the Police Department’s draft camera policy, including the circumstances under which the videos would be released to the public.

Bell asked those who had concerns – Reece, Johnson and Schewel – to come back with revisions. The discussion was furthered delayed when City Manager Tom Bonfield wanted to wait until new Police Chief C.J. Davis took over the department in June.

A state law that went into effect Oct. 1 overtook the local discussion.

It allows people who are recorded, or their representatives, to see footage if the police chief allows it. If access is denied, the subject can seek a court order to see the video. A court order also is required for general release of footage.

Attorney Diane Standaert, of the Durham NAACP, said the organization has concerns about the lack of public accountability under the new state law and a policy that lets officers use the video in preparing their reports and their court testimony.

“The recommendation of over 33 national civil rights organizations expressly recommends that officers be prohibited from reviewing the video prior to preparing their reports in order to preserve the evidence and credibility of their testimony,” she said.

Davis said when officers write a report they will complete a narrative, as they do now. Then they can review the video, which they can use to complete a supplement to the report. When making statements, officers will review video footage after making an initial statement.

Schewel supported the purchase because he thought the community would be sorry if another officer-involved shooting occurred with no footage to turn to. The state law creates challenges, he said, but there are workarounds.

The policy says footage should be released to the city manager and city attorney when requested for administrative purposes. City Attorney Patrick Baker has said the City Council is his employer so he will be able to release footage to members for review.

“So this is a strong workaround that solves one of the problems,” Schewel said.

In addition, Schewel thinks Durham County judges will support public access to body-camera footage when appropriate.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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