Some questioned whether they were worth the more than $1 million they were going to cost the city. Others were skeptical that they’d be of any real use, thanks to a controversial law signed by Governor McCrory this summer. And one man said the purchase would amount to “an unprecedented expansion” of a “surveillance state” mentality.
But the arguments made against making body cameras a standard accessory on the uniforms worn by members of the Durham Police Department fell on at least five sets of deaf ears Monday, as the board voted 5–2 to spend some $1.4 million to utilize the devices on Bull City streets. Several of those who voted aye said not doing so would have, at some point in the future, been looked upon as a blown opportunity.
The city council has been debating the body camera issue since February, and even then there were opposing views on how the city should proceed. Council member Steve Schewel was concerned about citizen privacy issues. Council member Jillian Johnson said she wouldn’t vote to approve funding unless there was a “clear policy” governing their use.
Fast-forward to this summer, and the discussion got more complicated. The General Assembly passed HB 972, which restricted access to the footage recorded on body cameras by prohibiting the release of recordings to the public unless a superior court judge ruled otherwise.
That law was enough to draw a no vote from council member Charlie Reece Monday.
“It is incredible to me that we would buy these cameras, deploy them on our police officers, capture video of them doing the job we hired them to do, and not a single resident of this city has the right to see any of that footage,” he said. “What are we doing if we’re buying these cameras and collecting this video and we have to go … before a superior court judge to have any of it released? That’s not right. That’s not transparency. That’s not enforcing accountability.”
He had other objections, too, including his contention that purchasing body cameras represents a “massive, and in Durham unprecedented, expansion of a surveillance state here.”
“Just suppose there is a police-involved shooting in Durham and we passed up the chance to purchase these cameras,” Schewel countered. “I believe that the same civil libertarians—among whom I count myself—would be back before us wanting more information about that shooting, information that these cameras can provide. I wish we had body cameras when Jose Ocampo was killed or when La’Vante Biggs was killed. It would have helped their families, the police department, and our whole community.”
Biggs, a suicidal twenty-one-year-old armed with a BB gun, was gunned down in the front yard of his mother’s house last September after a forty-five-minute standoff with police. Ocampo, a thirty-three-year-old Hispanic man, was shot by the DPD in July 2013, moments after officers responded to a stabbing. The Ocampo family’s attorney has said Ocampo was waiting to explain to the police what had occurred, but when he took the knife out of his pocket and presented the handle to them, they fired.
The details of those incidents, had they been captured on camera, might have brought clarity as to what actually happened.
Still, Johnson—who, like Reece, voted against the measure—argued that there were more effective ways to improve the DPD’s community relations.
“This isn’t just a budget question or a money question,” she said. “This is a values question of how do we keep our communities safe, and we’re very quick to jump to police and more policing as the answer,” she said. “I believe that we are neglecting the real opportunity to make our community safer by investing in opportunities for all people—especially those people who are most likely to be perpetrators or victims of violent crime.”
She pointed out that nearly $230,000 of the $1.4 million will be drawn from asset forfeiture funds, which she characterized as “legalized theft,” as “asset forfeiture funds are taken from people who are simply accused of crimes and not convicted.”
Police Chief C.J. Davis, who’s been an outspoken proponent of body cameras, again spoke in support of the purchase, despite HB 972. “The idea of body cameras, dash cam video is very important for officers to know even internally we have a way of examining what occurred at a particular incident,” she said. “When individuals are being recorded, they have a tendency to adjust their behavior, and I believe the body cameras are going to be very beneficial for the department regardless of what the legislation says.”
Council member Don Moffitt, who voted for the body cams, argued that the cameras are “a way of providing answers, and I think that, all things considered, that is an obligation that we have to provide our city and citizens with answers whenever we can.”
Just when the cameras will be purchased and put into use has yet to be determined.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Yes We Cam?”