Asheville inches closer to police body camera rollout

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draft of the police department’s policy concerning body cameras at its meeting on May 12, 2015, but the agenda item was withdrawn pending further development of the administrative process for the program.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.

Panelists at a discussion of body camera policies and issues (l to r) Sheriff Van Duncan, Police Chief Tammy Hooper, attorney Frank Goldsmith, District Attorney Todd Williams and Asheville Citizen Times columnist John Boyle. Photo by Virginia Daffron
Panelists at a discussion of body camera policies and issues (l to r) Sheriff Van Duncan, Police Chief Tammy Hooper, attorney Frank Goldsmith, District Attorney Todd Williams and Asheville Citizen Times columnist John Boyle. Photo by Virginia Daffron

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.

Implementation costs

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.

Next steps

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.

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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14 thoughts on “Asheville inches closer to police body camera rollout

  1. boatrocker

    Body cameras for every cop in America- from the moment you clock in to the moment you clock out. Cover the cam with your hand for peeing/other things, but otherwise-

    As the Patriot Act states:
    If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then what do you have to hide?
    If you see a cop doing something wrong, capture it on video, email it to a secure server and say something.

    Freedom, liberty, etc etc blah blah.

    Also, put cops in jail in general lockup, not in special delicate snowflake lockup.
    Then let’s see how many cops feel themselves above the law.

    Any so called good cop who doesn’t snitch on a bad cop (for valuing the Constitution above all else) is still a bad cop.

    End the militarization of cops in America- we already have a military.

  2. Grant Milin

    Good story, Virginia.

    “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.”

    Since I was at least one of the people asking city leaders and the media to take a look at an APD body camera policy back in May when COA was about to finalize the procurement process, that part of the citizen intervention is missing. I’m not looking up the May agenda and look at that again but the facts should be that the body camera procurement was up for vote, and there was no policy attached. If there was a policy in mind back then, it was a simplistic policy compared to where we are now.

    Ref. “City delays body camera purchase, concerned about footage”, Joel Burgess, Citizen-Times, May 12, 2015

    It sounds like there was a procurement and deployment plan, but nothing in the way of a camera usage, footage retention, and public access policy back in May.

    Keith Young was quoted. I don’t think there should be further delay on buying the APD body cameras and deploying them, but there has to be a COA promise that an optimum policy with public input will be completed within a year. I suggested an independent citizen’s body camera task force. C-T columnist John Boyle suggested another panel (YAP = Yet Another Panel).

    There are DOJ body camera policy recommendations that APD actually references but have yet to be publicized. That’s a shame as what we do here in Asheville as to raising the quality bar on body camera policy makes a difference across the nation.

    I found multiple references to the legal concept of photographic evidence. Since the camera and celluloid film, history, the law, and culture have been impacted greatly in many ways. When I hear of an elected official chairing the PSC and talking about “the footage be destroyed as soon as possible” it gives pause.

    The question of whether body cameras are another wholesale government surveillance media isn’t handled by simply notifying citizens they are being filmed, “unless it is unsafe or impractical to do so.”

    A halfway decent attorney working for the public trust and legislators with marbles and guts can amend NCGS 132-1.4 as appropriate and needed. It’s a law that looks could be interpreted to support regular public access of motion picture as other public records, unless a compelling law enforcement rationale is present.

      • Grant Milin

        I sent you and Jeff an email on the possibility of a DOJ-led body camera policy webinar. It’s for the press too. I got a confirmation it should happen for public consumption and hopefully there will be a press release next week before the 2/22 PSC meeting you told us about, Virginia.

  3. tsalagi sister

    Can you imagine how Medford would not have been able to lock up the domestic violence victim his son beat up?Perhaps it would not have taken seven years to arrest the crook for other crimes.
    Corruption destroys public Faith in law enforcement.Only transparency and accountability restores it

    • Grant Milin

      If one person is either saved from receiving unjust treatment, or justice is melted out properly to a violator who might have otherwise gone free, then it’s worth it to set the bar as high as possible on Asheville’s body camera policy. Ideally there is some kind drop in crime and the possibility of unjust treatment is lessened on the sides of many, many parties.

    • James L. (Larry) Smith

      Right. And transparency and accountability include releasing footage to the media and the public of rogue cops like Tim Teves and Sean Kent mashing on innocent people. Nothing like the antiseptic rays of sunshine to clean up corruption in government offices like that of our sneaky social media sheriff who poses one way and does another. Don’t you just love it how these “public servants” dissimulate by citing privacy concerns when the faces of private citizens can easily be blurred, as you have often seen on YouTube when cops are caught committing brutality. Chapter 132 has been construed against its intent so many times by so many unsavory officials and their pals in robes that it ceases to have any meaning, although it clearly says that public records are the property of the people. Now all of you folks with badges run into the bushes and hide.

      • Doesn't Matter

        You truly have no idea what happened with Tim Teves or Sean Kent. Know your facts before making accusations.

        • James L. (Larry) Smith

          You’re kinda anonymous and cowardly, aren’t you? Why don’t you say your name? Betcha you got something at stake in this, don’t you? So you’d lie and conceal your name.

          I do know enough that Teves and Kent were fired because victims officially complained and bodycams corroborated the narratives of the victims. So Teves and Kent were justifiably fired.

          I have had personal eyeball experiences with Teves. He should have been fired long ago. He’s a sadist who takes pleasure in violence and abusing the innocent. Good riddance to him. He ought to feel lucky he’s not behind bars.

  4. Big Al

    Bothwell in an email, “I will insist on full Council consideration of the policy,…”

    Making APD wait on City Council to approve of how cameras are used will guarantee a delay in their implementation.

    Maybe forever.

  5. Derek

    I applied for this position. Do you know who I can contact to follow up on my application?

  6. James L. (Larry) Smith

    Let’s face it: Public officials don’t like sunshine laws, transparency, body cameras. They have agreed to body cams grudgingly, but what use are they to protect the public if videos which incriminate law-enforcement officers are concealed from the public.

    I remember back in the seventies when the jail was in the old courthouse, the booking area was on the ground floor, over on the south side of the courthouse. Whenever officers wanted to beat someone black and blue and sometimes half-dead and sometimes dead, they simply turned off the video cameras. This was a common occurrence lawyers and courthouse officials constantly whispered about. I go back to the forties here, and to the brutal administrations of dishonest sheriffs like Laurence Brown and Thomas Morissey.

    This is a universal truth: It doesn’t take a social scientist to tell you that public officials behave less ethically when they know they are not being watched. And that’s another reason why audio-video cameras should be installed in every courtroom in Buncombe County. That won’t stop all the chicanery, but it will deter some of it, guaranteed.

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