Body cams have limits, police warn during demo

The Charleston Police Department has reviewed nine body cameras from five manufacturers in an effort to choose the best fit for its officers. Pictured is the TASER AXON body, a current front-runner for the department. Melissa Boughton/Staff

The Charleston Police Department plans to be outfitted with at least 120 body cameras by June but wants the public to know that with the technical advantages, there are also limitations.

“We have to look at the challenges of all of this technology and set community expectation,” said Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Tony Elder. “These are not going to be the end all, be all.”

The police department put on a demonstration Tuesday for local media to show the capabilities of body cameras and answer questions about where and how they are worn and how they work. The department first started looking into the use of body cameras in late 2013, before the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York stemming from police-involved shootings.

The discussion about body cameras began long before the death of Denzell Curnell, who received a gunshot wound in June during a struggle with a police officer. The department, however, created its first draft policy regarding body cameras in July and submitted another version in December after input from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The department is now in its final stages of examining and testing nine different cameras from five different manufacturers. The Taser Axon body camera is a frontrunner and was used Tuesday during virtual practice law enforcement encounters.

“We have been very deliberate about what we’re doing in our selection of cameras and looking at all the benefits they provide and the challenges that we’ll face through (using) that type of technology,” Elder said.

Officers welcome wearing the cameras, not only to build community trust, but for mutual accountability during encounters and better court presentation.

“We’ll be able to have those and be very transparent about what we’re doing out here in the field, and be able to very quickly go back and look at what happened in each of these calls,” Elder said.

He also pointed out some limitations and challenges with the cameras, including visibility at night and the potential for an encounter not to be videotaped.

For example, when a situation with an individual turns bad, officers are taught to go into a “law enforcement stance,” in which they turn their bodies in an effort to keep their weapons out of reach of civilians.

Because the body camera is worn on an officer’s chest, when he or she turns the body, the camera view changes and doesn’t necessarily capture video of the situation.

“The encounter itself is being heard, the audio of it, but what I’m seeing is not there anymore,” he said. “We feel it’s important to level community expectations of what these cameras are capable of capturing because it may not capture every single thing in that encounter.”

The camera also captures different views depending on the size of an officer compared to the size of the person he is encountering, and visibility at night greatly varies depending on whether or not an infrared camera is used.

“(Infrared) cameras will see more than what the officer will see,” Elder said.

He showed a side-by-side video of a test run between a regular body camera and an infrared one. The difference was drastic, the infrared showing on camera what would normally be pitch-black to the naked eye.

“So then, when you go back to review the camera and determine mutual accountability, and the officer says, ‘Well, I didn’t see that,’ and the illuminated camera did see it, what’s going to be the question?” Elder asked. “If the camera caught it, how come the officer didn’t see it? The camera clearly shows that was a flashlight and not a knife, but the officer may not have seen that.”

He said the biggest challenge of choosing the right body camera for officers is making sure it records what the officer can see.

“If we become too dependent on these, what an officer sees outside of the camera may be discredited by the public,” Elder added.

Still, the benefits of body cameras far outweigh the challenges, he said, noting that he believed they would make a positive impact on officers’ relationship with the public.

It’s no longer a matter of whether officers will be outfitted with the cameras, but when. Elder said the department plans to purchase 120 cameras by March, but they will have them no later than June.

About 280 cameras are needed to outfit all the officers on patrol, which is the ultimate goal, according to Police Chief Greg Mullen. The cameras cost between $800 and $1000 apiece, but there are additional expenses for storing the video.

In addition to grants from the city and the Justice Department, the Charleston Police Fund — a private effort administered by the Coastal Community Foundation — has already raised more than $100,000 for the purchase of the body cameras, according to board chairman Dr. Gary Nestler.

Nestler said Tuesday that the board wants to raise community awareness about what a good initiative getting officers body cameras is, and that they need more donations to help fully fund them.

Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.