Police departments nationwide are spending millions to outfit officers with cameras and archive the videos. It’s the latest clash between the people’s right to know and government authority. The public should not believe police transparency will necessarily be the end result. If it were up to Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock, all police videos would be made available for public viewing, but it’s not his call. In North Carolina, videos are considered confidential elements of crime scene investigations, according to Fayetteville City Attorney Karen McDonald. Only city council can authorize the public release of videos, and routinely it has not.
Greenville, S.C., Police Chief Ken Miller who also served as chief of the Greensboro P.D., notes body camera issues vary from state to state. “Policies, training and resources also vary,” Miller said. “We worked through a litany of privacy, legal, retention, training and financial concerns to ensure we met community expectations.” That’s what Medlock is going through now. He’s holding a series of community forums this month personally telling residents of his plans. Medlock says camera policy will be an ongoing matter as citizens provide their input.
The White House, through its Task Force on 21st Century Policing created a year ago, suggested new restrictions on camera use despite President Barack Obama’s belief that the videos would improve transparency in policing. Medlock recently testified before the Task Force. It warned that releasing videos showing use of force, “even when lawful and appropriate,” can undermine trust in police, and that images showing minors and graphic events raise concerns. The task force said public records laws need updating to protect the privacy of all people in these recordings, not just police officers.
The Fayetteville Police Department’s fleet of patrol cruisers has been equipped with in-car cameras for more than four years. By the end of the month, officers will begin wearing body cameras, says Medlock. Fayetteville Police chose Taser Axon to provide the body worn cameras using $1.2 million in grants and savings to equip 325 patrol officers. The biggest part of the funding is a $530,000 federal grant. Fayetteville’s Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in North Carolina to receive the body cam competitive grant, said the chief. A few officers have been testing cameras over the last two years.
Each personal video system is in two parts, the camera and a battery operated storage unit about the size of a deck of cards.
According to Axon, the camera itself can be mounted to eyeglasses. Or it can be worn on an officer’s uniform collar. It’s attached with a wire to the controller that is clipped to a belt. When police officers double press the EVENT button to start recording, a video buffer allows the camera to keep a recording of events 30 seconds prior to hitting the ON button.
As part of the contract with the city, Axon will twice replace all body cameras with newer technology. The first upgrade will come after two and a half years, with a second upgrade after five years. Medlock cautions that officers can’t record every situation which they encounter because video storage is expensive. Medlock asked his audiences this month for their thoughts on when and under what circumstances cops should turn on their cameras. He explained that camera contents are automatically uploaded to the cloud as officers return to police headquarters at the end of each ten-hour shift.
Chief Medlock tells Up & Coming Weekly that eventually body-worn cameras will completely replace police car dash cameras resulting in significant savings. In-car camera systems cost $6 thousand each.cameras are $600 each.