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Wednesday, 06 January 2016 15:31

Franklin cops to begin using body cameras

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law enforcementAs allegations of police brutality continue to dominate the news all across the country, many law enforcement agencies have turned to body cameras as a possible solution.

“Given today’s environment of public perception, having body cams ensures officers are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” said Franklin Police Chief David Adams. “It protects all parties involved — the public, officers and the town.”

Body cameras allow officers to record their interactions with the public simply by wearing a small mobile device on their uniforms. Adams said these mobile video recordings could aid in prosecuting traffic violations, investigating cases and evaluating officers’ performance. The use of recorded interactions with the public can also reduce the number of substantiated complaints against officers and improves community relations. 

Now that the Franklin Board of Aldermen has approved a policy regarding the use of body cameras for law enforcement officers, Adams said he hopes to get the equipment up and running sometime in the next week. 

According to the policy, officers are responsible for maintaining the equipment and shall inspect and test the body camera prior to each shift to verify it is working properly. Officers shall not edit, alter, erase, duplicate, copy, or distribute the recordings without approval from the chief of police. 

Adams said officers are to activate the body cameras during any police-public interaction when responding to calls for service or taking enforcement actions. For example, he said officers would not have the body cameras activated while patrolling but would turn the camera on once a traffic stop is made. While the camera wouldn’t catch the alleged traffic violation — like running a red light or speeding — it would record the interaction between the driver and officer.

The new policy also restricts officers from using the body cameras to record people in locations where they have “a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a restroom or a locker room.” Recordings can’t be taken of strip searches or taken in patient care areas of health care facilities unless it is for official purposes.

Officers are supposed to download the recorded data at the end of each shift and all the data is under the exclusive control of the Franklin Police Department. Any request to release the data must be submitted to the police chief in writing. 

The increased use of body cameras has raised some questions about personal privacy versus the public’s right to view public police records. The town board also had questions about how available these recordings would be to the public. Would they be considered public record under state law similar to written reports? 

The oversimplified answer is yes, but Adams said there are many factors that would determine whether a recording could be released to the public. If the video were part of an ongoing investigation, it wouldn’t have to be released. A video may also be considered a personnel matter if an officer’s conduct is in question. Under North Carolina law, personnel information is not considered a public record. But what if there is a recording of a domestic violence incident that is now a closed case? While it is still a very personal matter, that video could potentially be released if there weren’t any minors involved. 

“There are a lot of variables, but we’ll have to try to sort it all out as we go and do the best we can,” Adams said. 

Town Attorney John Henning Jr. agreed that the recordings could be considered public record under state law, but it depends on the situation. 

 “Nine out of 10 times it’s either going to be part of an investigation, which means it’s not public record, or it’s going to fall under personnel — records of our employees are exempt,” Henning said. “It will be at the chief’s discretion whether to release it.”

Adams said he didn’t see why recordings wouldn’t be released upon request in most instances after a case is closed. He told the board that the department would follow state guidelines when it comes to deciding whether a recording would be public record. A recording would not be released if it was evidence in an ongoing investigation or if it could be considered part of an officer’s personnel file. 

Alderman Joe Collins said he worried about public perception if the agency refused to release a recording.

“Any time you don’t release something people want to know why,” he said. “It will always look like we’re hiding something.”

In a follow-up interview, Mayor Bob Scott said he had no problem with police officers having body cameras now that the technology is much better than it was years ago. He is also confident that the state’s current public records statutes adequately govern the public’s use of the video if challenged.

“We adopted a policy that has been in use by other agencies for several years and we have adapted it to Franklin. Like anything new, there will be a learning curve,” Scott said. 

Adams said he has been looking to implement a body camera program for more than a year because his officers don’t have dash cameras in their patrol cars. While dash cams can cost $3,000 a piece, the department was able to get 12 body cams for $300 each. The cost was covered by a donation from the local ABC Board. 

“This is cheapest and most effective tool because we don’t have car cameras,” Adams said. 

Scott said he thinks the body cameras will be more effective than dash cams anyway.

“Car video has been around for years, but all they see is what is directly in front of the patrol car,” he said. “Body cameras go with the officer and I feel they will be more useful in situations that may be challenged. They are as much a protection to the officer as they are to the public.”

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