Could body- mounted cameras make a difference to police departments and citizens when there’s conflicting stories in an investigation?
Some cities and towns are calling for the technology following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager that has sparked violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
Eyewitnesses claim 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot while surrendering to a police officer, while the officer claims that Brown was in pursuit of his gun. The conflicting accounts have helped fuel racial tensions across the country.
In the small town of Orange, Virginia, the police chief says in-car and body cameras have made a big difference in clearing up cases and reducing citizen complaints. Each of the town’s 15 sworn officers, including Chief James Fenwick, wears a body-mounted camera at all times.
“The officers know that number one, their behavior is going to be scrutinized, as well as the behavior of the citizens, ” says Chief Fenwick.
The department used grant money to help purchase the in-car cameras more than a decade ago, and body cameras four years ago. In-car cameras range anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000, while body cameras cost between $200-$500.
Unlike in-car cameras, the body camera sees and hears exactly what the officer does. However, the camera must be activated by the officer and can miss an event that precedes a confrontation.
That’s where in-car cameras serve as back up, Fenwick says. The in-car technology, mounted to the rearview mirror, has a pre-event recording capability of thirty seconds.
“We’ve been to multiple calls where we have both body camera audio and video, as well as in-car audio and video,” Fenwick says. “I mean, that’s a Commonwealth Attorney’s dream.”
While prices have become more competitive over the past few years, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police says with tight budgets, larger police agencies have been challenged to purchase cameras and train all of their patrol officers to use them.
The expense is less for smaller agencies.
Gordonsville and Waverly Police Departments both use body camera technology, while several larger police departments in Central Virginia tell CBS 6 that they are researching the cameras and conducting trial runs.
“The advantage to wearing body cameras is that they do record a portion of the police-community interaction, and can help to accurately collect evidence in the event of a police investigation,” says Dana Schrad with the Association of Chiefs of Police.
Schrad says it’s important, however, that agencies have a policy in place to train officers on the proper use and care of the cameras, and establishing how long camera recordings are kept and how they are used in investigations, including the privacy rights of third parties.
Fenwick says his department tries to keep recorded video for at least three months or until investigations are resolved.