If all goes as planned, when a Durham police officer heads to a crime scene, makes a traffic stop or searches someone next year, the officer will turn on a body camera to record what happens next.
The cameras haven’t been picked, but many of the details have been worked out and Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh expects them to be in place next spring or summer.
“You’re not going to have any backlash from Durham PD,” Marsh told reporters during a news conference unveiling the draft body-camera policy Thursday at police headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street.
The department held six public forums in May and June to let residents speak about body cameras. It will take comments about the draft policy until Jan. 14, 2016.
“Body cameras represent an opportunity for the Durham Police Department to enhance transparency and accountability to the community,” Police Chief Jose Lopez said in a statement. “We received a lot of great feedback from the listening sessions and we want to hear directly from residents about the draft policy.”
The Durham Police Department has about 500 officers. The plan is to initially outfit about 250 uniform patrol and other officers with cameras they will fasten to their clothing at the start of a shift.
Officers doing off-duty security work in the community will also have to wear the cameras. The devices will not be shared, and officers will take them home like they do their guns and radios.
Once recording, the cameras will remain on until the initial incident has ended or stabilized, according to the draft policy. Officers may turn off cameras when a non-suspect requests it but only after the request has been recorded on camera. Cameras may not be used in private situations such as bathrooms, patient areas of health-care facilities and in other circumstances outlined in the draft policy.
Camera footage will be stored for at least 180 days unless it involves DWIs, misdemeanor or felony cases, accidents involving city vehicles or administrative investigations.
Video recordings, like current in-car camera footage, are not public records under North Carolina law, Marsh said. However, the department may release footage it deems in the public interest.
Plea for patience
“This is a draft policy,” Marsh said. “I can’t stress that word enough.”
He also asked for the public’s patience as police implement cameras.
“Things unfold very, very quickly for us,” Marsh said of officers in the field. “This is not going to be a perfect system. There may be times when an officer forgets to turn on the camera. ... There’s going to be a learning curve in terms of developing this new habit of using this new tool. But ultimately they’re going to be held responsible.”
The Durham Police Department is under the microscope following a surge in violent crime, officer-involved shootings and the death of a Durham high school student in the back of a patrol car in recent years. Lopez, who did not attend Thursday’s press conference, is being forced to retire after eight years at the end of this month by City Manager Tom Bonfield.
It’s possible body cameras could have helped clarify things in the fatal shooting of Jose Ocampo in July 2013. Police say Ocampo, a suspect in a stabbing, was holding a knife by the handle in a threatening manner when he was shot and killed by police.
At the time attorney Scott Holmes said some witnesses maintained Ocampo, who spoke little English, was holding the knife handle side out in an attempt to surrender the weapon when he was shot.
A police investigation, however, found only one witness said Ocampo was holding the knife by the blade, and that firefighters who arrived after shots were fired saw a knife removed from his hand that was held by the handle.
Many Triangle law enforcement agencies are using or testing body cameras. The General Assembly passed legislation this year that provides $2.5 million in each of the next two fiscal years to help law enforcement agencies buy body cameras and train officers to use them. The maximum grant is $100,000 and agencies must provide a 2-for-1 match in local money.
Body-worn cameras remain under study by the Raleigh Police Department, spokesman Jim Sughrue said. “Work is progressing but has not yet reached a point at which a public announcement would be in order,” he said by email Thursday.
In Orange County, the Hillsborough Police Department has started using body cameras, and the Carrboro Police Department is finalizing a policy. The larger, 120-officer Chapel Hill Police Department has tested several body cameras and next wants to test a model produced by the same maker of its in-car cameras, Lt. Joshua Mecimore said.
In Durham, Marsh said he spoke with every patrol unit as the department prepared the draft policy and that most officers just wanted to know what they needed to do to follow it.
“Ultimately this is just the next evolution in police technology,” he said. “It’s just a tool to serve our citizens better.”
Comment on the policy
Durham residents can provide comments about the body camera policy by these methods:
Phone: 919-560-4322, extension 29198