Durham News

Durham police take questions on body-camera use

Durham Police Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh.
Durham Police Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A lot of decisions remain before the Durham Police Department buys body cameras for its officers, but at a public forum Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh Sr. was definite on one point.

“I can tell you this,” he said. Whatever the cameras record, “the officers will not be able to alter or delete it.”

Marsh’s statement came during a public “listening forum” on body cameras at Antioch Baptist Church in Northeast Central Durham, the second of six being held this month.

The forums are not intended as question-and-answer sessions, but are meant for collecting public input on buying cameras and setting policies for their use.

“None of your questions, none of your comments will be ignored,” said Police Chief Jose L. Lopez, who attended but left Marsh, who is in charge of testing and evaluating the cameras, to run the forum.

“We want to know from you what you want to see (and) gain a clear understanding of what your expectations are,” Marsh said. “We’re going to go on this journey together ... embracing this technology.”

About 30 residents attended the forum, including City Council members Eddie Davis and Steve Schewel and County Commissioner Brenda Howerton. Commissioners’ Chairman Michael Page, who is pastor at Antioch Baptist, also attended.

Besides the chance that videos could be tampered with, residents raised concerns about privacy: Whether a civilian would have a choice about being recorded, particularly crime victims and persons not involved in the police-civilian interaction.

There were also questions whether a camera’s microphone might pick up bystanders’ private conversations having nothing to do with a police encounter.

Body cameras are small audio-video recorders attached to an officer’s uniform. They are typically used to record police-civilian encounters that can be downloaded and stored on computers.

Durham police recently finished 90-day field tests of two body-camera models, but Marsh said the results have not been fully evaluated and the department might decide to try out others before choosing what to buy.

“There are 50 or 60 vendors out there selling body cameras,” he said. “We’re not just rushing into this, we’re trying to be good stewards with your money.”

Some other questions raised included:

▪  Which officers would get the cameras?

▪  When would cameras be recording? Could officers cut them on and off?

▪  Who would have access to stored videos?

▪  What penalties would there be for officers violating body-camera policies?

▪  Where would the money come from?

Marsh said the “tentative plan” is to issue cameras to front-line patrol and HEAT (High Enforcement Abatement Teams) officers, who have most direct contact with citizens.

He also said the city would pursue a federal grant to pay for cameras and their associated equipment, such as storage capacity. To most questions, though, he said that policy decisions have yet to be made.

“We’re in the early stages, we don’t have all the answers,” Marsh said.

The forum itself was video-recorded, and Marsh asked the audience to also submit questions and comments in writing. Once police decide what cameras they want to buy, he said, they will issue a “frequently asked questions” response and send copies directly to anyone who signed up at one of the six public forums.

“All questions will be answered,” he said. “I promise you.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

Widespread interest

Durham is one of several law-enforcement jurisdictions in the Triangle, including Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Wake County, looking into body cameras. Hillsborough and Knightdale police already use them.

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office has no plans for buying body cameras, according to spokesman Brian Jones, but “we continue to evaluate developments regarding this rapidly evolving technology.”

According to a 2014 U.S. Justice Department report on police body-camera programs, (nando.com/1a2), the cameras are useful for documenting evidence, officer training, resolving citizen complaints about police treatment and improving police accountability.

Two bills have been introduced in the state House, HB 395 (nando.com/395) and HB 537 (nando.com/537), requiring most law-enforcement agencies to use body cameras. Both remain in a House committee, but House members have unanimously passed a third bill, HB 811 (nando.com/811), calling for a study of body camera use by law enforcement. That bill is now in the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations.

In the wake of several police killings of black suspects, and resulting civil disturbances, President Barack Obama has proposed a 50 percent matching grant program to help local agencies pay for cameras and storage capability.

Forums remaining

Three public listening forums in Durham remain:

▪  Tuesday, May 19 – Russell Memorial CME Church, 703 S. Alston Ave.,, 6-7:30 p.m.

▪  Wednesday, May 20 – Durham Housing Authority, 330 E. Main St., 10-11:30 a.m.

▪  Thursday, May 28 – Southwest Regional Library, 3605 Shannon Road, 6-7:30 p.m.