Two weeks after Akiel Denkins was shot and killed by a Raleigh police officer under disputed circumstances on February 29, the city council unanimously approved the purchase of six hundred body cameras and instructed Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown to develop a plan to put them to use over the next three years. The city expects to spend as much as $5.2 million on the program over the next five years.
That was only the beginning.
The nextand most importantstep is figuring out who gets to watch the videos those cameras produce. Judging by debates raging in other cities around the state and vague statements from city officials, this question won’t have an easy answer.
In Charlotte and Durham, police departments have claimed that state law considers body cameras part of an officer’s personnel file. The Charlotte police chief, Kerr Putney, has said that he alone has the authority to view the footage. Here’s the problem with that: following a recent altercation in which a cop beat a man who was lying on the ground, Putney said the video proved the officer’s story. But because that video hasn’t been made public, there’s no way to tell if he’s right. (A bystander’s cellphone recording suggests he’s not.)
In Durham, meanwhile, debate over access to the footage has effectively stalled the city’s plan to spend $366,000 on cameras until after a new chief has been named. As in Charlotte, police officials have sought more restricted access than those who argue that the cops need greater accountability.
Yet, as sticky as this wicket has proven elsewhere, Raleigh has thus far dodged the inevitable debate. Deck-Brown told the council that the Raleigh Police Department’s policy would be unveiled in the third quarter of this year, right before the first hundred cameras hit the streets. RPD spokesman Jim Sughrue told the INDY that the “development of a policy will be among the near-term steps taken,” and that there “was nothing to add to that.” Likewise, Mayor Nancy McFarlane declined to comment; her office said it would be “premature” to do so.
Council member Corey Branch, whose district includes the Southeast Raleigh neighborhood where Denkins was killed, says the criteria for releasing this footage are still being developed with help from the city’s attorneys.
“It’s situational, and we don’t know all the situations,” Branch says. “For anything involving a domestic case or a child, I wouldn’t want to release right away to protect their privacy.”
Civil rights advocates have an idea what that policy should look like. In early March, the state ACLU sent the mayor, city council members, and the police department a letter outlining best practices employed by other municipalities. Included are “clear directives” on body-camera activation, reasonable public access, mandates for how long the RPD holds on to those videos, and consequences for officers who violate body-cam policies.
“In North Carolina, we struggle with how to define records properly,” says N.C. ACLU policy counsel Susanna Birdsong, who authored the letter. “We would advocate that the discretion not remain within the police department. The very least amount of access should be that the person depicted on the recording should be allowed to see it.”
Geraldine Alshamy, a member of the newly created Police Accountability Community Taskforcewhich is not affiliated with the citysays three years is too long to wait for the body-cam program to be fully implemented.
“Body cameras are just a first step,” she says, “but we need to take a deeper look at these cities that are using them.”
Alshamy, like her counterparts in Durham, is also pushing for “reasonable public access”including making videos available through the RPD website or some other meansthat would be ensured by an independent oversight committee or citizen review board.
“I am definitely looking into it,” Branch says of a review board. “It’s too early to say we’re going to have one, but it’s something I’m paying attention to.”
A review board, Alshamy argues, would go a long way toward solving what she sees as the real problem.
“Body cameras alone are not the cure-all,” she says. “It’s about the ability to trust the police.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The $5 Million Question”