Under the Dome

Key questions remain before police body cameras widespread in NC

Before body cameras become a police standard in North Carolina, the state needs to address statutory voids that leave local agencies guessing on policy, law enforcement officials increasingly say.

At the same time, they’re concerned about costs, not just for the hardware or replacement parts, but for securely storing the countless hours of video. For many agencies it’s a pile-on, considering the allowances they’ve already made for dashboard-camera footage.

“The costs of storage in the cloud, or even with servers, is going to become expensive,” said Gene Vardaman, executive director of the N.C. Criminal Justice Information Network, a collaboration of law enforcement officials that is studying the issue.

Just how long to store the footage is a question lacking a clear answer in the statutes. Police chiefs also want clarity on how to label the footage. It could be evidence, or a personnel record of officer performance — either of which can throw up firewalls to public access.

“I think, you know, that’s one of the decisions that agencies are trying to make, is what is our purpose here (in using body cameras)?” said Bob Brinson, chief information officer at the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

Transparency has been a theme as the cameras gain prominence in the national dialogue, pushed by high-profile police incidents such as the August 2014 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Officers there began wearing body cameras in the aftermath amid public pressure to record their actions.

The Greensboro Police Department became one of the first in North Carolina to adopt the technology when it bought body cameras two and a half years ago. Officials say they’ve been a great addition for the public and officers.

“It does support the idea of transparency with the community that we serve,” said Sgt. Justin Flynt, who oversees the body cameras for the department. He said performance evaluators there use the videos to study officer behavior for improvement. The public is restricted access to the video.

But the cameras have also raised privacy concerns, Flynt and other police officials note.

“What if we go into someone’s private house and we end up in their bedroom for some reason? You can imagine what we could capture there,” Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous told his city council in September. The cameras, in many environments, could record an array of sensitive or personal images, not to mention the faces of juveniles, informants or sexual assault victims, he said.

Scrubbing those details from videos could be time-consuming and costly, Evangelous said before the council approved more body camera purchases that month. It bought 70 “for evidence and other purposes” for $60,000, mostly state grant money. That added to roughly 50 body cameras the department already had.

Evangelous recommended putting a moratorium on additional cameras until his department can hire someone to manage the footage.

Most police agencies have some kind of in-house policy or guide for officers on recording video in the field. Though it hasn’t purchased cameras yet, Durham is one of the latest cities to venture in, having released a draft body-cam policy last month. It would require storage of video for 180 days, or longer if it documents a crime. Regarded as investigative material, the footage wouldn’t be public record.

Mike Meno, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, says Durham’s draft policy is “far too broad” in terms of access. “This technology can benefit both police and the communities they serve, but only if the right policies are in place to ensure accountability and transparency,” he said.

The Durham Police Department is accepting public comments on the draft policy until Jan. 14.

The Raleigh Police Department is also studying the issue, according to spokesman Jim Sughrue, who said no body cameras are active at that department yet.

It’s in the N.C. General Assembly’s eye, too, and legislation could be on the way to help resolve some of the local policy-making uncertainties. A bill that passed the House in 2015 and awaits action in the Senate would study how body cameras are implemented and make recommendations that could lead to new laws.

“When to turn it on, when to turn it off, what do you store, how long do you store it?” said bill sponsor Rep. Allen McNeill, an Asheboro Republican who worked for more than 30 years with the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office.

But Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president at the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said there’s already plenty of guidance out there, including best-practice advice from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.

He said any wise legislative tweaks or updates would deal with access to video and how departments should pay for cameras and data storage.

But he thinks local agencies can determine what’s best for their situations.

“The best law enforcement and the best government is that which is closest to the people, and that’s at the local level,” Caldwell said.

Benjamin Brown of The Insider

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