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Body-mounted cameras provide ‘backup’ for area agency

POSTED: November 24, 2013 12:08 a.m.

As surveillance and monitoring technology increases, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union advocate safeguards and limits to ensure government uses data in ethical and legal ways.

However in October, the organization cautiously added its formal voice of approval on increasing surveillance in one specific area: police encounters with the public.

“We believe that when there are proper safeguards in place, body-mounted cameras can really be a useful way of promoting accountability, and guarding against abusive police practices, and at the same time, protecting police from false accusations,” said Chad Brock, staff attorney for the ACLU in Georgia.

Locally, law enforcement use of recording interactions vary. The Hall County Sheriff’s Office does not issue body-worn cameras due to budget constraints, said Lt. Stephen Wilbanks, assistant commander of the Patrol Division.

Cpl. Kevin Holbrook, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said motorcycle officers use body cameras for convenience, and eyeglass-like cameras could be a future possibility.

But one agency has enthusiastically adopted their use: the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Major Stephen Adams, with the law enforcement division of the DNR, said the introduction about seven years ago of Vidmics — the manufacturer’s title for the body-mounted camera — has been a positive investment.

“As with anything new, there was a little bit of apprehension when we first put them out,” Adams said, although opinions have changed. “Our officers like wearing them just for the simple fact that they know it’s going to provide a true and accurate depiction of what happened — sort of a little backup.” 

Since 2008, every officer in the field uses the Vidmic. 

Policy dictates that officers turn on the camera in every interaction with the public.

“It provides a good tool to reduce complaints from the public, to protect the officer and to protect the public,” Adams said. “There’s no recounting what happened — you watch the complaint.”

Supervisors don’t exhaustively monitor all video, Adams said, but do perform simple “spot checks” for quality assurance.

One Vidmic costs about $800 and the agency has about 150, Adams said. But even at a total cost exceeding $100,000, Adams said, the technology pays for itself.

“There’s a lot of intangibles, where you may be preventing a law suit, for example,” he said.

Brock said that although the technology is becoming more affordable, it’s common for agencies to cite cost, and echoed Adams’ rationale.

“If you’re faced with the possibility of facing several lawsuits in court, you’re much better off probably investing in the technology,” he said.

Other benefits, Adams said, don’t have a price tag.

“You’re enhancing the professionalism of an officer, and there’s some officer safety aspects,” he said. “If an officer knows ‘I’m being recorded,’ they’re going to do things right. It increases the awareness.”

Adams noted that the officer is not required to tell people they are being videotaped, which the ACLU has no qualms about.

However, the group would probably find the DNR’s policy of five years retention of video data objectionable, which Adams said is based on state guidelines. The ACLU said data should be stored for days, not years.

“We would want to see data retention policies that require police to destroy any of the video surveillance within a reasonable time for a routine encounter — three days to two weeks — unless there was a reason for it to be flagged,” Brock said, such as a violent encounter that led to an arrest.

Brock pointed out that the ACLU harbors other concerns over misuse and other unintended consequences.

“One of our concerns with this technology — we wouldn’t support technologies where they are constantly recording, such as where citizens are engaged with citizens in a protest,” Brock said.

If law enforcement used the cameras sporadically or selectively, it would also raise concerns, he said.

“There shouldn’t be a policy where the officer can selectively turn off the recording. We would want to get a full picture, in guarding against abusive processes,” Brock said. “We’ve seen that already with the mounted cameras on patrol cars. That technology has been useful in determining whether or not the police stop is proper, but if there are situations where the camera is going off — if there’s a way to manipulate or stop the recording — it loses its utility.”

That utility is evident when looking at civil and criminal allegations. The public and police often have differing accounts of events.

Adams said all interactions are recorded, barring technology issues.

“If the camera is working, then all interactions are recorded. There are times when it’s not recorded, however, because of technology issues,” Adams said. “We encourage the officers to keep a full battery, to download video so that it’s not full, because of the available memory.”

But again Brock said, there are again exceptions. The ACLU would want officers to be allowed discretion where citizen privacy takes precedence.

“At the same time, we are aware of instances where an officer may be asked to come into someone’s home for a routine call,” he said. “In those situations, we would support an officer being able to ask the person if they would like to turn the camera off.”

Brock emphasized that the ACLU generally opposes ramping up surveillance.

“We still closely scrutinize the use of municipal cameras, automatic license plate-reading technology — those are forms of mass surveillance, and we certainly have concerns there,” Brock said.

But having an objective record of a police interaction benefits both sides, he said.

“Rather than looking at this in a suspicious way, where we’re suspicious of your ability to abuse power, look at it as a safeguard, too,” Brock said. “I’m sure that police officers are frustrated when there are numerous complaints against them that turn out to be fabricated, and that’s a frustrating experience for people who devote their life to law enforcement.”


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