ACLU weighs in on police body-mounted cameras

For the American Civil Liberties Union, law enforcement’s use of wearable cameras comes with inherent privacy concerns. If handled correctly, the organization determined, the added benefit of police accountability could outweigh the drawback.

Ideally, the ACLU said in a report that was released Oct. 9, police officers who are equipped with body cameras would run the devices continuously throughout their shifts. Freedom to turn the cameras on and off would greatly diminish the technology’s ability to provide a check and balance against law enforcement, the organization reported.

To restrict potential invasions of privacy, the ACLU said, officers must take great care to inform citizens that they are being recorded, especially when entering someone’s home. Recordings should be limited to uniformed officers and marked vehicles, with the exception of SWAT raids and planned uses of force, the ACLU determined.

The ACLU stated that it will continue to monitor the impact of body cameras. The organization will re-evaluate its stance on the technology if law enforcement agencies don’t implement sound policies that justify the use of body cameras.

To read the ACLU’s report in full, visit the organization’s website, www.aclu.org.

An armed man sprints away from law enforcement and officers hurriedly make chase.

Officers fire off several rounds, killing the man, and authorities are left poring over varying witness accounts and those of first responders as they piece together crucial details in an investigation.

Every law enforcement agency is faced with this scenario at some point.

In August, a Hanahan police officer fatally shot a 22-year-old man who ran from a traffic stop and fired a pistol at officers as he fled.

More recently, a 51-year-old man was killed in an encounter with Charleston County sheriff’s deputies on Oct. 12.

Oftentimes, the only video of such incidents comes from cameras that are perched on the dashboards of cruisers at the scene. Even that is subject to scrutiny as much of the action moves in and out of the camera’s view directly in front of the vehicle.

This, in part, is why many departments across the country are equipping their officers with cameras that can be clipped onto uniforms or even worn as eyeglasses to create a visual record of everything the officer sees.

Body cameras aren’t common in the Lowcountry, but Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said he believes that will change in coming years.

“This is the future of policing. In 10 years, it’ll be just like issuing a gun and a badge,” Mullen said.

To Mullen, the primary benefit of body cameras is that they provide a clear, independent view of any situation.

“If I’m walking into a house, I have that video. I’m in a foot pursuit, I have that video. If all I have is the camera in my car, then all those things outside of a traffic stop are basically not covered,” Mullen said.

Law enforcement agencies must weigh a bevy of policy concerns when using any piece of surveillance equipment, Mullen said. One large topic of discussion is the privacy of citizens.

“If I go into your house and I’m just there on a routine call, do you want me recording all the things that are in your house? If your house is a mess, do you want that to be recorded and stored somewhere for a period of time,” Mullen questioned.

Charleston police engaged in talks with the city’s residents and the American Civil Liberties Union before installing security cameras along the peninsula’s streets. Mullen said the department would do the same thing before moving forward with any new surveillance technology.

“As important as the piece of equipment is, the policies are just as important in terms of how you’re actually going to use this equipment,” Mullen said.

Charleston police will begin to test the cameras as soon as next year. But Mullen said there isn’t room in the budget right now to cover the hundreds of thousands of dollars that some agencies have spent to outfit their departments.

This past summer, the Greensboro Police Department in North Carolina spent $311,500 to purchase 295 Taser Axon Flex cameras.

Greensboro police Sgt. Chris Schultheis said $163,500 of that bill was paid through the efforts of the Greensboro Police Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that helps raise funds for the department’s needs beyond what is already covered by tax dollars. The rest was paid with a federal stimulus grant.

Schultheis said the department has used the cameras to document a number of manhunts that ended in the use of force, as well as an encounter with an emotionally disturbed juvenile who assaulted an officer with a knife.

None of those cases would have been captured by a stationary dash-cam. The footage provides “powerful evidence for prosecution of offenses” in such high liability cases, he said.

Schultheis said the cameras also have helped the department identify potential training needs for its officers, while eliminating frivolous complaints.

“They have helped de-escalate situations just by their presence,” Schultheis said in an email. “We have seen subjects’ behavior change once they realize they were being recorded.”

When asked if there’s enough of a local need to warrant investing in the cameras right away, Mullen responded that “it’s very difficult to quantify prevention.”

Mullen said ongoing maintenance and the cost of data storage would far exceed the one-time expense for the actual cameras.

“What I can say is video has the opportunity to reduce the number of false complaints, which saves a lot of time and energy. It does have the opportunity to assist in lawsuits because it can show that what people allege happened, didn’t happen. ... And it does provide a benefit to the community. It gives the community a sense of trust and it helps to alleviate concerns that the police are acting inappropriately and unprofessionally,” Mullen said.

A few Charleston officers have already purchased their own cameras to wear in the field.

Some motorcycle officers in Summerville also use the cameras because they don’t have the in-car option, police Capt. Jon Rogers said.

Charleston County sheriff’s deputies have considered using the body cameras, but Maj. Jim Brady said cost is a factor in whether the department will move in that direction.

Dash-cam video captured by sheriff’s deputies in the Oct. 12 shooting provided a limited account of the events that led to the death of 51-year-old Derryl Drayton. Drayton ran beyond one camera’s frame as officers chased behind him. He appeared blurry and obscured by headlights in a separate video.

Deputies reported that they fired upon the man only after he wounded a deputy with a knife. Attempts to subdue him with Tasers were unsuccessful.

The Charleston branch of the NAACP has questioned deputies’ accounts and whether the fatal shooting was justified after witnesses reported seeing the man’s arms raised and his back turned shortly before he was fatally wounded.

Brady declined to comment on whether a body camera would have been beneficial in the case. He spoke in general terms when he said that authorities often review critical incidents to determine if there are existing technology or techniques that might benefit future events.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.