Police Chief Brandon Zuidema told town council members this week that as distrust between police departments and their communities grows nationwide body cameras eventually will be a requirement for police officers, including in Garner.
Garner could see body cameras on each of its 63 first-response officers as soon as next January, if the town council approves. Zuidema said the benefits of body cameras include transparency, police accountability to the public, a reduction in complaints and better behavior from police and citizens.
But in a town of 27,000, where police seldom use force or fire their weapons, some on the town council believe body cameras will be more of a hindrance than a benefit to the police department.
“I can’t see it being anything but quagmire,” council member Buck Kennedy said. “It’s arming the criminal, not the police.”
Garner police officers used force 63 times in 2014, the most recent data available. Thirty-four incidents involved officers pulling out and pointing their weapons, 15 involved physical force, eight involved using a taser, three involved use of a K-9 and three involved accidental or negligent discharge of a weapon.
Kennedy said he thinks body cameras won’t increase transparency or mend relationships between police and the community.
“It will be a tool used to disparage you in every manner,” Kennedy warned Zuidema during the council meeting Tuesday night. “It will never streamline the legal process. It will extend that process. It will not lead to closure. It will lead to indefiniteness. And ultimately it’s going to undermine law enforcement.”
Council member Gra Singleton agreed. He said the negatives outweigh the positives.
“Once you put that camera on, you’re automatically saying, ‘I don’t trust you,’ and the citizens don’t trust the police,” Singleton said. “The camera automatically lowers the level of trust to begin with.”
Singleton said he thinks better training for police officers would be more beneficial.
“It’s interesting that more people are killed by doctors and medical errors every year than there are by police,” he said. “But we ain’t putting cameras on doctors.”
Some on the council, however, see it differently.
“I agree with some of the comments of others, that we certainly don’t need to hasten things by any means,” council member Ken Marshburn said. “But my own limited experience in a form of federal law enforcement over my 26-year career tells me that some things, sometimes, start as a trend and then they go away.
“This is not one of those things that I think is going to go away. And I think we have to face it and deal with it.”
Council member Jackie Johns echoed his sentiments.
“I think if we don’t get them now, we’re going to have to get them in the future,” he said.
Other Triangle municipalities are also taking steps toward acquiring body cameras for police. Last month, the Raleigh City Council approved body-worn cameras for 600 officers during the next three years. In Durham, council members have delayed the purchase of body cameras to give their new police chief a chance to weigh in on a policy.
The Garner Police Department tested potential body camera models in 2015.
“We learned what works well and what doesn’t work well with certain types of cameras and where you place them,” Zuidema said. “We learned what you do see with the camera and what you don’t see with the cameras.”
He said the test period gave the town time to work on a policy for the cameras, although that policy is not yet complete. Among the questions that surround the use of body cameras are when it is appropriate to film, where to store the footage, when it is appropriate for footage to be made public and whether an officer should let a person know when the camera is recording.
A General Assembly committee earlier this month approved a draft bill that would regulate the use of police body cameras in the state for the first time and establish a procedure for determining if the footage should be released. If it clears the General Assembly and is signed by the governor, the bill would take effect this year.
Zuidema is budgeting $24,500 in the next budget for 15 cameras, which he hopes will be paid for by a federal grant the police department is seeking. The body cameras would be used by first responders on duty.