Durham News

Durham delays body cameras purchase over questions of public access

In this Feb. 2, 2015 file photo, Duluth police officer Dan Merseth, left, wear a the body camera on the front of his uniform during his shift in Duluth, Minn.
In this Feb. 2, 2015 file photo, Duluth police officer Dan Merseth, left, wear a the body camera on the front of his uniform during his shift in Duluth, Minn. AP File Photo

The City Council postponed a vote on the purchase of police body cameras Monday night after several members expressed concerns about the policy governing them.

The council is not responsible for approving the document guiding the cameras’ use. Still, members felt uncomfortable approving funding given their misgivings about certain clauses within it.

“I have not been shy about expressing my deep concerns about this particular draft of the policy and some of the issues I have with the provisions,” Councilman Charlie Reece said.

Mayor Bill Bell called on those with concerns, specifically Reece and council members Steve Schewel and Jillian Johnson, to talk with city manager and come back in three weeks with a revised draft policy. The vote to purchase the cameras is scheduled for March 7.

“This can’t keep going on; at some point in time we’ve got to make a decision,” Bell said.

Schewel is confident that the policy will be ready. “The police department has done a great job of steadily improving the privacy, transparency and accountability features of the order,” he said in an interview.

He added that there have been nearly a dozen drafts, each one getting closer to an ideal final version. “I think the biggest remaining issue is under what circumstances the video will be released to the public,” he said.

During Monday’s meeting, Schewel warned against a proposed blanket requirement that all uses of force be publicly accessible barring a compelling reason not to release it.

“It wouldn’t be the officer who would be embarrassed – after all, they are behind the camera,” Schewel said. “It would be the community member who would not want his or her actions released willy-nilly to the public and the media.”

Citing the example of The Slammer, a magazine that publishes mugshots, Schewel said, “I don’t want us to inadvertently contribute in a significant way to that same kind of shaming of Durhamites.”

Instead, he advocated for either a three-person independent panel to review recordings or a specific, transparent process for how the footage could be requested and made public at the discretion of the Police Department or City Council.

Public Comments

Eight community members spoke at the meeting, airing their concerns about the current version of the general order.

“How will these body cameras be building a culture of trust if the police chief can delete or edit footage at will?” asked Jade Brooks, a member of the Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement coalition. “That, to me, is not creating accountability. It’s increasing a culture of surveillance.”

“Where body cameras are doing any good whatsoever, it is not to help police surveil the communities,” said Gregory Williams, a Duke Divinity student. “It is to help communities surveil the police.”

“It seems there’s no governing policy in place for this for them to know when and where they should use it, how they should use it, and at what times,” said Marcus Morrow, a veteran and federal security consultant. Without that guidance, “buying the cameras is a little pre-emptive,” he said.

Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said body cameras have “great potential,” but wanted to know whether and how officers will be disciplined for violating the policy. She also questioned a provision allowing footage obtained in a manner outside the policy to be included in a criminal investigative file.

Birdsong also said recordings should be accessible “in every instance” to the people in them and be released to the media and the public with certain privacy protections in place.

Cameras not enough

Despite their reluctance to approve the funding for the cameras, the council members seem to agree that body cameras are a worthwhile venture.

“I think there are some studies out there that, although not definitive, do establish a reason for hope that the deployment of police-worn body cameras can significantly reduce incidents of use of force by police officers,” Reece said. “I think that’s ultimately the goal we all have with this policy.”

But Schwel cautioned that body cameras alone would not be enough.

“Whatever we do with the cameras, it doesn’t in any way absolve us – either the council or the community as a whole – from doing the other work we need to do in terms of dealing with the situation we have in Durham that creates crime,” he said. “This camera is a technical solution to a small part of this issue, but that’s all it is, and it won’t get at the underlying causes.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Cora Cole-McFadden called the lack of trust between the community and the police department “really troubling.”

“Somehow we need to rebuild the trust,” she said. “I don’t know how policy can rebuild trust.”

Ritchie: 919-829-8925