Police body cameras: Public dollars, limited access
CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Police officers see citizens during some of their worst and best times. Traumatic events like car crashes and crime scenes are balanced by positive interactions with Good Samaritans trying to help.
There are also times when the accused becomes the accuser, by saying the officer acted inappropriately.
Now many of those intimate and sometimes heated moments will be recorded in Charlotte and a growing number of municipalities. However, the public will not be allowed to see the videos under North Carolina public records law.
The cameras were approved by Charlotte City Council at a cost of $7 million to help guarantee accountability and transparency when it comes to police and the community.
The rollout will take approximately six to nine months before 1400 officers are equipped with cameras.
This comes as the national conversation has changed about community interactions with police. There were no body cameras rolling when Michael Brown was shot by a Ferguson, Missouri officer last year.
There were also no body cameras rolling when Jonathan Ferrell was shot ten times by CMPD officer Randall Kerrick in 2013.
Police say Ferrell was unarmed and seeking help after crashing his car. A scared neighbor called 911 after Ferrell banged on her door. Kerrick and two other officers responded to the disturbance call and encountered Ferrell that night.
Dash cam captured only part of the exchange.
"I don't think there's any doubt the Ferrell case is a driving factor behind this move toward body cameras quicker than we anticipated," said Ferrell family attorney Charles Monnett, III. He represents the family in a civil case filed in federal court.
Monnett obtained the dash cam video only after a federal judge agreed the City had to hand over evidence for the civil case, even while the criminal case is pending. The public has never seen the video, despite requests.
Body cam video would be treated the same way statewide. Tax dollars pay for the officers and the cameras, but the video is not public record if it's part of a criminal investigation or an officer's personnel file.
"We need a balance between the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy. Striking where that balance lies is going to take a little time," said Monnett.
Computer programming whiz Timothy Clemans, once known as the anonymous Requestor, forced the issue in Washington State. He created his own youtube channel to show videos to the public, click here to watch.
"I think we in the public need to hold officers accountable," said Clemans. "I think the only way we in the public will know what's going on, is if we have access to the reports and video."
He wreaked havoc on several local departments by requesting all their video. Now he's helping Seattle Police address privacy and access by developing software to automatically blur faces and remove audio during automatic uploads.
This is not happening in Charlotte.
"I would love to see the video made public," said community activist Robert Dawkins who works with Democracy NC. He's already working with city leaders and Representative Rodney Moore to create a civil rights ordinance for the city. Dawkins hopes to address surveillance issues next.
"Chief Monroe has been very good as far as working with us," said Dawkins, who says he understands the privacy concerns but also wants more oversight and access.
Right now, body cam video can only be released to the public if Chief Rodney Monroe believes it serves the public interest. Chief Monroe has said he will consider doing so in certain cases.
Monnett believes the person being filmed should also have access to the video and be able to obtain a copy.
City leaders plan to ask the state for an exemption, so that a citizen who files a formal complaint against an officer can view the tape.
Monnett says the complaint process should not be the only method for viewing, yet he does believe in restricting access to the general public.
"We don't want a situation where that video is in the public domain with no control over when it's released," said Monnett.
Like with dash cam video in the Ferrell shooting, there will be cases when body cam video will be shown publically at trial.
The Requestor says from what he's observed, police usually get it right.
But for him, seeing was believing.
- Body cameras would be activated during traffic stops, frisk and stops, consent searches, arrests, uses of force, when requested by a citizen, when blue lights and tasers are activated.
- The body cameras will not always be fliming, but there will be a 30 second pre-roll which activates when the recorder is turned on.
- Video would be stored the first year with Taser International's website, Evidence.com; then the city would establish and operate its own digital database.
- Police officers would not be able to edit or remove video.