The issue of police body-worn video cameras isn’t new — the Asheville Police Department first formed a committee to plan for the acquisition and implementation of the cameras in 2013 — but getting the technology in place has taken longer than originally expected.
Asheville City Council was scheduled to vote on a draft of the police department’s policy concerning body cameras at its meeting on May 12, 2015, but the agenda item was withdrawn pending further development of the administrative process for the program. According to Council member Cecil Bothwell, who serves as chairman of the city’s Public Safety Committee, city leadership decided at that point to wait until new Police Chief Tammy Hooper (who was sworn in on July 20, 2015) had settled into her role before moving forward with the policy.
In January, the Police Department announced that it had posted a job listing for a technology specialist to administer the technical aspects of the body camera program. Then, on Feb. 8, the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office hosted a joint panel discussion to provide information about their agencies’ policies on the use of the cameras and the digital footage the devices capture.
Along with Chief Hooper and Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, panel members included Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, local civil rights attorney Frank Goldsmith and Asheville Citizen-Times columnist and reporter John Boyle.
Duncan reported that his agency has been using body cameras for a year. Buncombe County’s 70 body-worn cameras were purchased for around $90,000 of federal asset seizure funds. Thus, said the sheriff, county taxpayers did not directly fund the purchase of the equipment. His department stores the digital recording files captured by the cameras on county-owned computer servers, so there is no significant ongoing cost associated with storage.
Duncan said he was “…glad I had that tool a couple of weeks ago when I fired two deputies in response to a complaint,” referring to body camera footage used as part of an investigation that led to the January dismissal of two Buncombe County deputies for inappropriate use of force. “I’m a strong believer in body cameras,” Duncan said. “I believe it is becoming a best practice.”
Asheville policy outlined
Though the Asheville police have not yet released the department’s draft body camera policy to the public, Chief Hooper provided an overview of the policy at the panel discussion.
Hooper said her department will record all contacts with the public, except in situations when recording would not be appropriate, such as in a case of sexual assault. In those situations, officers will ask the victim if he or she wishes to be recorded. If the individual responds that he or she does not wish to be recorded, the officer will comply with the request. The officer’s question and the individual’s response must be filmed. Anytime a recording is discontinued, the resulting digital file will be flagged.
All footage will be retained for a period of 60 days, Hooper said. Any footage captured during a police contact that results in an arrest, a use of force or a citizen complaint will be flagged and retained for three years. Hooper said that the files will be uploaded to and securely stored on a cloud server and that the public will not have access to them. Only sworn supervisors, the city attorney and the chief will be able to access the digital files.
Christina Hallingse, Public Information Officer for the department, clarified in an email after the meeting that officers will notify citizens that they are being recorded unless it is unsafe or impractical to do so.
Asheville will initially purchase 60 cameras and will begin deploying them by this summer, Hooper said. A test group of ten units will be deployed in the department’s Public Housing unit, she continued, with the additional cameras then being issued to traffic officers, downtown officers and community patrol officers. Full deployment of the 180 cameras the department will eventually use will take place over a period of two to three years.
Release of footage
Under North Carolina law, body camera footage is not public information, said Hooper. In her view, North Carolina general statute 132-1.4, which defines investigative information as “records or information that pertain to a person or group of persons that is compiled by a public law enforcement agency in an effort to anticipate, prevent, or monitor possible violations of the law” applies to body camera recordings.
District Attorney Todd Williams cited the same statute as one of the legal justifications for not releasing the recordings to the media or members of the public. Williams also said that records related to personnel matters are not public under North Carolina law. “Those records can be released by a judge,” Williams noted.
Hooper pointed out that releasing video footage would present significant privacy concerns, since footage might capture people in stressful situations. “We’re talking about a bad time in your life,” she said, pointing out that the footage could show citizens in their own homes and could depict minors or innocent bystanders. Most people, she said, wouldn’t want film of themselves in such situations made public.
Both Hooper and Duncan stressed that making footage publicly available would require their departments to view and redact hundreds of thousands of hours of footage, a costly proposition. “You are talking about gigs and gigs — really, terabytes — of information,” said Williams. But both department leaders also said that citizens involved in a specific contact with law enforcement can ask to view the footage. “We have allowed people to bring in their family members,” said Duncan, adding that his department hadn’t received any requests from citizens to bring members of the media to view footage.
Reached after the panel discussion, Bothwell said his greatest concern was that the footage be destroyed as soon as possible so that it does not constitute police surveillance of citizens. “We are already videotaped all the time,” he commented, referring to ubiquitous security cameras.
The initial purchase of 60 Taser Axon cameras and associated startup costs will run around $142,000, said Hooper. The money was budgeted in last year’s city budget; since the funds were not used, they rolled over into the current year. Ongoing unlimited cloud-based storage costs are projected to be $78,000 per year. The cost of the technology specialist position will be in addition to those fees.
Hooper noted that costs for body cameras and storage have doubled or tripled over the past year in response to soaring demand.
For future purchases, the city will apply for state funds that, if granted, will offset the cost of additional camera purchases on a two to one basis.
According to Bothwell, the next step in the development of the body camera policy will be presentation and discussion of the policy at the Feb. 22 meeting of the Public Safety Committee. “While I am under the impression that the policy could be set in place by the City Manager,” wrote Bothwell in an email, “I will insist on full Council consideration of the policy, and I would guess Mr. Jackson would prefer that as well.”
Members of the public will be able to comment on the policy at the Public Safety Committee meeting and when the policy comes before City Council for review.
Bothwell said in an interview that, while the cameras may be ordered before the policy has been finalized, no cameras will be deployed before an approved policy is in place.
“I think we are going to find a solution we can all live with,” said Hooper.