By Josiah Clark
In the wake of instances of police brutality across the country in the past year, police officers are being outfitted with more body cameras everyday. In May, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it will set aside $20 million to outfit officers with these cameras.
Meanwhile police departments in the High Country have been ahead of the curve.
The Boone Police Department has been using body cameras since fall of 2013. The body cameras have proven to be valuable tools that provide accountability and transparency for police and citizens, but there are some concerning privacy issues with the storage and handling of footage.
Body cameras are small recording devices, which are placed on an officer’s shirt, and actively record any situation involving the officer. Video recordings obtained on sight are extremely useful for investigations, and help to ensure that investigators know exactly what transpired during the recorded incident.
According to Boone Police spokesperson Sergeant Shane Robbins, every Boone police officer now wears a body camera. He said the decision, which he called “a proactive approach,” was made by Police Chief Dana Crawford, and was not based on any national incidents.
“I think they are certainly a very valuable tool, and we are fortunate that Chief Crawford had the foresight to implement them,” said Sgt. Robbins.
Due to expensive software, cloud data storage costs, and a $500-700 price tag per camera, the Blowing Rock Police Department owns and operates only four body cameras since last August. Officers currently share the Axon Flex body cameras in rotation.
However, Blowing Rock Chief of Police Tony Jones has been a big advocate of both body and in-car cameras throughout his 26-year career in law enforcement, and said the tragic events at Ferguson and elsewhere had no bearing on his decision to begin incorporating body cameras.
After working hard to secure more funding in the upcoming budget, Chief Jones said he plans to fully integrate body cameras into the Blowing Rock police force next year.
While purchasing the body cameras and storing the recordings are a big expense, Sgt. Robbins also pointed out that they are a much better bargain than the classic in-car cameras, which are immobile and run anywhere from $5,000-6,000. Ultimately, it’s a huge savings.
“The benefits are very high. You’ve got to balance the cost, but it’s well worth what we spend,” added Sgt. Robbins.
So far, the benefits of police-worn body cameras seem to offset the expensive costs, but the technology is not without controversy. The addition of police body cameras has left many citizens wondering if the recordings will be made public record.
Although Chief Jones acknowledged that all footage obtained with body cameras is stored at a secure offsite location, he said he would be happy to personally sit and review videos with anyone who has filed a complaint against an officer, or has had issues with an officer following an incident.
Subsequently, the N.C. House filed a bill last April 14 that would require law enforcement agencies to release recorded videos without the consent of the officers involved in the recordings.
House Bill 713 stipulates that law enforcement agencies must “release to the public recordings captured by body-worn cameras and in-car cameras utilized by law enforcement officers.”
Chief Jones is worried that House Bill 713 could compromise the safety of civilians who are recorded. Since the cameras are mounted at eye level, the recordings capture names, addresses and personal information while an officer is examining an individual’s driver’s license.
He said, “If we make that information public record with Bill 713, then a lot of people’s private information will be made available and be accessible. I am very hesitant about that.”
There are also concerns about the limited memory and battery capacity of the body cameras in use. With current technological limits, the cameras are unable to record non-stop around the clock, but the cameras do have a “pre-record buffer” that always takes video, but no audio unless the camera is engaged.
Despite obvious pros and cons, police departments in the High Country seem to have embraced this technology.
Body cameras have become a part of the standard equipment for Boone police officers, and the same will happen in Blowing Rock. You can expect to see most, if not all officers in the High Country, equipped with one in the near future.
“I have always believed in transparency, and in recording as much as possible. Our current footage shows that the vast majority of our police officers are doing exactly what they are supposed to do, but if you have some officers that are not, then the body cameras are going to show that,” said Chief Jones.
Both Sgt. Robbins and Chief Jones acknowledged that the Boone and Blowing Rock Police Departments use body cameras developed by Axon Flex. The manufacturer website lists several benefits for body camera use, including:
- Video from the officer’s perspective reduces complaints and use-of-force by up to 88% and 60% respectively.
- Automatic upload to EVIDENCE.com saves time every shift.
- Pre-event buffer lets you capture the build-up, not just the action.
- Low-light video capture sees all activity, even after dark.