Wake County

Raleigh police are getting body-worn cameras. Will you be able to see what they record?

A body camera worn by a Hillsborough police officer. Raleigh’s body camera draft policy requires cameras to be mounted on the front of the officer’s uniform to capture events “from the officer’s perspective.”
A body camera worn by a Hillsborough police officer. Raleigh’s body camera draft policy requires cameras to be mounted on the front of the officer’s uniform to capture events “from the officer’s perspective.” N&O file photo

After more than 18 months of discussions, Raleigh could soon have a policy in place for cameras worn by police officers.

The Raleigh City Council could vote on a proposed policy Jan. 2.

The city is not publicly releasing the policy’s most recent draft, crafted by the police department, before next week’s meeting. A preliminary draft had been posted online until about three weeks ago.

But Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown read the proposed policy aloud during two public hearings in front of the City Council last week. A police spokeswoman said the department would not answer questions about it until the Jan. 2 meeting.

Raleigh plans to spend $5.2 million, including $1.2 million in grant money, to equip 600 officers with body cameras. Here’s what you need to know about the proposed policy.

Why does Raleigh want its police officers to wear cameras?

There’s been a push around the country for body-worn cameras for law enforcement, especially since the 2014 officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Some local residents and officials called for body-worn cameras after a Raleigh police officer shot and killed 24-year-old Akiel Denkins in February 2016. The officer said Denkins pulled out a gun during a chase, but witnesses said Denkins was shot as he fled.

After reviewing the evidence, the Wake County district attorney decided not to pursue charges against the officer.

Would the public be allowed to view the video footage?

Maybe.

A controversial state law that went into effect in October 2016 allows North Carolina police departments to decide whether to release the footage to the people in the videos. A court order is required before police release footage to the public.

“(Raleigh) did include language that says there’s a presumption they will disclose footage, but that still gives them lots of outs, lots of reasons they would not disclose,” said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Those loopholes are problematic.”

The proposed policy lists several reasons why the department might not disclose the footage, including when it is of a “highly sensitive and personal nature” or could “jeopardize the reputation or safety of a person.”

Could police officers view the footage before filing a report?

Yes.

The proposed policy would also allow officers to view footage before filing an incident report – and before it’s known whether the subjects of the footage will ever see it.

This point is often debated as body-camera policies are developed.

“If an officer can tailor his or her account to only what the body camera footage shows, that footage might not have captured everything that occurred in an encounter,” Birdsong said. “That seems to put a heavy thumb on the scale. It provides full transparency for the officers, but not to the community.”

Deck-Brown said allowing officers to see the footage helps the department’s commitment to produce a report within five days of an incident involving use of force.

When would Raleigh officers turn the cameras on and off?

Under the proposed policy, officers would turn on the cameras as soon as possible during arrests and traffic stops, and when criminal activity is occurring.

They would also turn on the cameras during calls involving a mental health crisis and when there are weapons or violence.

The policy says officers should not turn off the cameras until the incident is over or has been stabilized. They can choose to turn them off when someone who is not a suspect makes the request.

The cameras would be prohibited during peaceful protests, strip searches and in health care facilities.

How does Raleigh’s draft policy compare to others around the country?

It’s somewhere in the middle of the road in terms of openness, according to a scorecard by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Some police departments have not made public their body-camera policies. Others, including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, require officers to provide a statement before viewing footage of “significant” incidents.

Only four of the cities surveyed allow subjects of recordings the right to review the footage.

Raleigh’s scorecard includes top marks for public access to the policy and limiting officer discretion on whether to activate the cameras.

Raleigh got a failing grade on pre-report viewing, protection against tampering, retention limits and limits on biometric indexing.

Why has it taken so long for Raleigh to develop a policy?

Police and city staff spent the summer meeting with citizen groups to talk about body-worn cameras.

Last week, Deck-Brown pointed to several paragraphs in the draft policy that had been contributed or changed by community members.

“I can understand concerns, but I do think it was worth every month of this process to hear the voice of this community,” Deck-Brown said. “We did not take this lightly at all. We did not, in my humble opinion, leave any stone unturned.”

Surena Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce, or PACT, said she was surprised the city had chosen this time of year to move forward.

“The thing that’s most concerning is that we were given very short notice of these presentations,” Johnson said. “They’ll present it to the City Council on Jan. 2, but who’s going to be there? It’s the holiday time, a lot of people are gone on vacation now. Why did they decide to go with this timing?”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan

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