County Police to Adopt Body Cameras

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Panelists John Blair, assistant county attorney for Albemarle, Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford, Police Chief Steve Sellers and Lt. Mike Wagner discussed body cameras on patrol officers at a public hearing Oct. 15.
Panelists John Blair, assistant county attorney for Albemarle, Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford, Police Chief Steve Sellers and Lt. Mike Wagner discussed body cameras on patrol officers at a public hearing Oct. 15.

The Albemarle County Police Department will very likely adopt the use of body cameras for patrol officers in two phases beginning next year, according to county police chief Steve Sellers. The department hosted a public hearing on the idea Oct. 15 to get the public’s reaction. Cameras appear to have the effect of lowering the number of complaints against the police and also improving the behavior of those who know they are being filmed.

Panelists John Blair, assistant county attorney for Albemarle, Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford, and Lt. Mike Wagner, who has been charged with investigating the use of cameras, joined Sellers to talk to a crowd of about 60 at police headquarters off Fifth Street in Charlottesville. Cynthia Murray served as moderator.

“We’ve been on a journey in this issue,” Sellers said. The department bought a few cameras three years ago and since then the technology and battery life have advanced. “We used them at special events like Foxfield [Races]. We learned a few things. It’s extremely expensive to store the video.”

Wagner studied the experience of other departments across the country and discovered their use is complicated. Meanwhile, Albemarle piloted a full-time-use trial last winter. Tests went on for four months.

Lunsford noted that “In-[police] car videos have been very, very helpful.” Body cameras raise “concerns on two levels,” she said. “First, the policy. We have to have it right. When do cameras get turned off? How long do we store the video? And what about privacy issues? Second, how do we make videos available to defense attorneys and through Freedom of Information Act requests?”

Blair said that according to the Public Records Act, video should be stored at least 30 days in noncriminal cases and could be stored for years, even 100 years in an open case. “How do you keep it secure?” he asked, noting the risk of hacking. Further, the faces of juveniles and the uninvolved bystanders would have to be blurred out.

“We also have some concern about the reliability of the technology,” said Sellers. “It doesn’t work every time. If it doesn’t work every time, do we lose the trust of the community?

“Body cameras don’t tell the whole story. They don’t smell and they don’t feel. They don’t see the hair on an officer’s neck rise. They are looking forward only.”

Referring to the department’s recent move to geographical policing, which stresses building relationships between citizens and police officers who stay assigned in certain areas, Wagner said, “we don’t want to interrupt our relationship with the community. The concept is not just a camera.”

Wagner said that officer experience with in-car cameras means that they can get up to speed quickly with training on body cameras.

“Cameras hold officers to a higher standard,” he said. “Use of force complaints go down because suspects realize they are being filmed. The use of force is reduced. Cameras collect evidence and help explain why police officers took action.”

But a Florida department of 200 officers found it spent $120,000 on video storage per year. Albemarle has about 100 patrol officers.

Sellers said the cost and burden of storing the video can be overcome. He said he will ask for $87,000 this year and again next to introduce cameras to the force. About $66,000 of that is for storage needs, an additional computer server, and $21,000 is for 50 cameras.

“We want to maintain open lines of communication with citizens,” said Wagner. “When do we turn cameras on? Are they on all shift long? That’s super expensive. Do we use them for interviews? Are they not to be used in domestic violence situations?”

Fred Scott, speaking from the audience, asked how the whole question of cameras came up and wondered if it related to the case of a fatal police shooting in Ferguson Missouri.

Wagner said that camera use started in patrol cars as a tool in DUI cases. “You can’t argue with the video. Body-worn cameras are an extension of that. It’s an added resource. Citizens want to see how their police do business. Citizens will ask, ‘What are you hiding?’

“Motorcycle officers wanted body cams because they don’t have car cameras. That’s how it got started.”

Rick Larsen, a retired Fairfax County officer, questioned the notion of not using a camera in domestic abuse calls. “Those are the most volatile,” he said. “To me, the camera helps law enforcement. It shows we did the proper thing.”

“Police work is the ugliest, dirtiest job in the world,” said Sellers. “We encounter things in people’s homes that would make most people sick.”

“From our experience, traffic stops and domestic abuse are the most dangerous situations,” said Lunsford. “I would like to see the cameras on. It’s protection for the police and it helps them do a better job.” Commenting on the cost, she wondered rhetorically, what a lawsuit would cost the county.

Sellers said an officer would not be allowed to turn off his camera without first notifying his supervisor. Neither could video be edited or deleted. If a video was edited later for a FOIA release, an original would still exist. He ventured to estimate that a dollar spent on a camera saves the county $4 in litigation costs.

“Sometimes when taking a statement they should go off,” said Wagner. He said he was thinking of cases in which sex was being discussed.

Asked how officers were reacting to the cameras, Wagner said, “Overwhelmingly, they want them. They see them as like bulletproof vests. They want to do the right thing and they want the public to know it. They don’t like being watched, but they understand.”

Sellers said that no officer wants a camera on all the time. “If I have to call my wife or use the restroom… it’s a balance.”

Wagner said that car cameras would still be in use, even if body cameras are adopted. “It’s a detriment to take them away.” He noted that body cameras would have the lens mounted at shoulder height so that an officer could not block the view of the camera by raising his arms. That mount gives the camera essentially the same view as the officer, too. Cameras are sold mounted to protective glasses and sunglasses, too.

“Some people who you need to give you information won’t do it if they’re being recorded,” said retired County sheriff Terry Hawkins. “And if a camera gets ripped off in a fight, the officer’s testimony has to mean something.”

Wagner said a citizen could ask for the camera to be turned off. Policy would set out the justifying circumstances.

“We’re trying to turn the tide about public negativism about police through our geo-policing policy,” said Sellers.

“Compliments of officers have gone up 25 percent. Would you as a citizen talk to an officer with a camera on?”

The crowd pondered that and no one stepped forward with an answer.

NAACP president Melvin Burruss said, “I’d like to answer that question. Everywhere we go, we’re on cameras, whether you realize it or not. I don’t think people will have problem now that it’s becoming more personal. People will get used to it. The benefits outweigh the cons.”

Another audience member said, “You need to feel free to have a private conversation with an officer. The policy needs to allow that.”

Blair said that if media requested video that was part of a criminal investigative file it would not be released if that could hamper prosecution.

“In a pending case we would decline to provide it for the sake of a fair trial,” said Lunsford. “FOIA exemptions allow that.”

A question was raised about complaints of excessive force against the ACPD. Sellers answered that in 2014 the police logged 56,000 contacts with citizens, 15,000 traffic stops and 44,000 calls. Those led to 2,600 arrests. Complaints of excessive force were made 19 times that year. “There’s nowhere a problem here, not even close.” He said 17 percent of what the department does involves criminal investigation and the rest is civil cases. He said there were five accusations of racial bias against officers and on investigation all were proven unfounded, some through car camera videos. “We did see cases where officers needed help knowing how to deal with people.”

“An officer has to have some discretion,” asserted Lunsford. “Just because a citizen asks for the camera to be cut off does not mean it should be.”

Curtis Byers, a retired deputy sheriff, said, “I support the cameras. It’s worthwhile spending money on them.”

“The buck stops with the chief,” said Sellers. “We’re human beings. We make mistakes. Citizen trust in policing is the lowest in my 33 years. The lowest. Nationally, only 48 percent of citizens naturally trust the police. But in Albemarle the trust is at 82 percent, according to a 2014 survey.”

The police will continue to develop the body camera policy, Sellers said. “I’m pretty certain we are going to press ‘go’ on this.”

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