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Police: Pilot camera program could help officers, community

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

Malcolm Xavier Springs shot one man during a drug deal that soured, then put a bullet in the leg of an officer pursuing him in west Charlotte on a winter night in 2011.

But lingering questions from that night didn’t focus on Springs’ actions. The spotlight was on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers who arrested him.

Neighbors watching from cracked window blinds said officers handcuffed Springs, then kicked and punched him as he lay on the ground, bleeding. Months later, an internal police investigation showed the officers acted according to policy. Springs was sentenced to nearly 30 years in federal prison. But witnesses still question whether police used excessive force.

Soon a 4-ounce piece of technology may make questions about controversial police encounters easier to answer.

Thirty-two police officers started wearing small cameras attached to their uniforms or glasses last month – part of a pilot program for a system that would provide video and audio of most encounters officers have with civilians. The 45-day trial ends Sept. 28.

The department wants to know whether the $300 body-mounted cameras could replace “dash cams” in officers’ cars and microphones clipped to their belts.

“Instead of me pulling up at the front of a house and turning my (patrol car’s) camera on and it’s recording the mailbox, now we’ve got video and audio of what’s going on while I’m interacting with that suspect, or this person who’s suicidal,” said CMPD Major Stephen Willis, who’s in charge of the pilot.

The department believes the footage could protect CMPD from frivolous lawsuits and increase criminal convictions.

Just knowing the camera is running makes everyone more cordial, officers involved in the pilot said during a report at the trial’s halfway point last week.

“When they recognize that (the officers) have a camera, the behavior changes. And it changes in more of a positive manner,” Willis said.

But civil libertarians say the cameras raise other questions. Chief among them is whether the camera footage – captured at taxpayer expense – would be a public record. Should the videos be available to people with a grievance against an officer? What about the merely curious?

Willis said the department maintains that camera footage is not a public record.

Chris Brook, legal director for the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it’s important to “ensure that citizens can access the footage. It’s not enough to just have the tools for accountability. You need to have rules that ensure that those tools work effectively.”

Made by Taser

The Axon Flex cameras that officers are experimenting with are made by Taser International, the company that makes the department’s electronic stun guns.

The camera is about the size of a tube of lipstick. An attached battery pack is smaller than a deck of cards. Together, they weigh less than the latest iPhone.

The small size means officers can wear the cameras in a variety of ways – on the shoulder or collar, even on a helmet or hat. Willis said the best view comes when the camera is attached to glasses, giving the lens a “cop’s eye” view.

It can record up to 12 hours of video – even in low light. But the cameras don’t wirelessly stream video, so an incident cannot be viewed as it is happening.

At the end of a shift, when an officer plugs the camera into a charging station, it automatically uploads videos from the day to Taser’s secure system, but it’s not clear how long the department would keep the footage.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police haven’t finalized policies for using the cameras, but the officers involved in the pilot have an operations manual.

The cameras go everywhere officers go – the department hasn’t placed additional restrictions on where police can take the cameras. The policy dictates that officers turn on their cameras when they’re about to interact with a member of the public. But officers aren’t expected to use the cameras when collecting evidence or interrogating suspects, Willis said.

And officers have discretion to turn off the cameras in situations when a person isn’t combative or while they’re collecting evidence.

Rialto’s case

The Rialto, Calif., police department started a pilot program using the cameras last year, and plans to roll out cameras to most of its patrol officers by the end of 2013, according to Chief Tony Farrar.

The department found the cameras helped investigators deal with complaints faster – especially frivolous ones.

“We’ve had several instances where we have had citizens come in to file a complaint, we showed them the video tape and after viewing the video, they’ve been more than happy to apologize to the officer,” Farrar said.

Farrar said none of the videos has been featured in court proceedings yet, though he said the cameras are “a very good tool to collect the best evidence – things that you see right there in the field that are taking place at a crime scene.”

Farrar said some of his officers were initially hesitant about the cameras, but the department realized officers are often recorded by people witnessing police activity.

“You’re already wearing audio recorders,” Farrar said he told his skeptical officers. “Everybody out there from kids to adults has a cellphone and they’re getting pieces of things that are out there, and those pieces tend to be the things that make the news.”

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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