Winston-Salem police to increase use of body cameras – Winston-Salem Journal

Be sure to smile the next time you talk to a Winston-Salem police officer.


You may be on camera.

The Winston-Salem Police Department is planning to step up its purchase of cameras worn on the body to replace its aging assembly of in-car camera systems.

What do you think about police using cameras on their bodies?

Police Chief Barry Rountree told city elected officials Monday that he wants to equip 95 additional officers with Taser Axon Flex cameras, which make an eye-level recording of what a police officer sees when the officer presses a button.

Rountree presented the plan to the Public Safety Committee of the Winston-Salem City Council, and brought along Sgt. L.S. Wright to demonstrate the use of the camera and how it is worn.

The camera is about 3 inches long and less than an inch in diameter. An officer can wear it with a flexible headband, though the cameras can also be mounted on a pair of sunglasses or in other configurations.

Rountree said that an in-car camera records only about 15 percent of a police officer’s activity. With the body-worn camera, an officer always has the ability to turn on the video and start recording.

Police see benefits

Police say the cameras are good for law enforcement for a number of reasons:

• It improves officer safety.

• It improves interactions between the public and police officers.

• It reduces citizen complaints because the video is there to document what happened in an interaction.

“The camera is a constant reminder to the officer,” Wright told council members.

And it is a reminder to citizens as well, he said. Wright said that police officers behave more professionally when they are wearing the cameras, and that members of the public show better manners, as well.

The cameras operate in a way that actually allow a police officer to save a record of activity before he pushes the button to start the camera, police said.

The camera is constantly recording a video signal, police explained. When the officer pushes the record button, the camera automatically saves the 30 seconds of activity that took place before the button was pushed.

Police installed the in-car cameras in 2007. The department has 260 cameras, but only 48 of them are still under warranty. Rountree said the in-car cameras would still be used until they stop working. Because of the age of the cameras, Rountree said, the city has been spending more than $75,000 a year for repairs.

Currently, Rountree said, the body-mounted cameras are used by the downtown bike patrol and by traffic enforcement officers.

Wright’s patrol squad has been testing the equipment for regular patrol officers.

Under Rountree’s proposal, the city would buy 190 body-mounted cameras at a cost of $644,000. It takes two cameras to give an officer one camera for use, because one camera charges while the other is in use.

The purchase would include three years of cloud-based storage and data management tools.

Officer reaction

One question council members had Monday was how officers are reacting to the cameras.

“Initially we may have some that may be skeptical about it,” Rountree said. “Once they start using it, they see the benefit of it.”

Another concern some council members had was whether someone could object to being filmed or whether there were other privacy concerns.

Rountree said that the American Civil Liberties Union has endorsed the use of the video cameras — a point of view backed up, at least partially, by Chris Brook, the legal director of the ACLU in North Carolina.

“The devil is in the details,” Brook said. “If you have the correct policies and procedures in place I think they can be a very valuable resource for law enforcement as well as the public.”

Those policies should include such concepts as consistency of use and a limit on how long a video is retained, Brook said.

“The use of recordings should be well-advertised,” he said. “When police are using body cameras, whenever practical they should inform folks that they are being filmed.”

With the right policies in place, Brook said, the camera can be a “win-win” for police and the public.

“They can protect police against frivolous claims of abuse and have the potential to protect against police misconduct, but there has to be wise policies in place.”

Rountree told council members Monday that there would be a public education campaign to let people know that they may be recorded by an officer in any encounter with police.

Meanwhile, Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity said that the city is in the process of developing regulations to govern the use of body-mounted cameras.

wyoung@wsjournal.com

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