On a brisk day in November a few blocks from Davidson College’s campus, Officer Nick Bockler clocks a woman driving 41 in a 25 mph zone. He clicks on his flashing lights and radios headquarters. Before getting out of his patrol car, he flips on a camera about the size of a deck of cards clipped to the front of his uniform.
The driver focused on Bockler’s newest piece of equipment as he talked to her, he said. “She was staring right at it.”
Bockler and the town of Davidson’s other police officers were issued body worn cameras in September, the first department in Mecklenburg County to get them. But those who interact with police in the Charlotte region will increasingly see the lens of a body camera next to an officer’s face or clipped to a uniform.
Officers in Cherryville wear the cameras. Gastonia is launching a pilot camera program. Winston-Salem ordered more than 600 body cameras last month, bringing the city’s total to about 900. And Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, the state’s biggest police force, is aiming for a rollout next year after a pilot program late last year.
Interest in the cameras has jumped across the nation after an officer shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. The killing and a grand jury’s decision last month not to charge the officer sparked sometimes violent protests, as both sides debated the details about what happened before Brown was shot.
In the wake of the unrest, President Barack Obama this month asked Congress for $75 million to buy 50,000 body cameras and training for officers across the nation to record events like Brown’s death at the hands of an officer.
Taser International, the manufacturer of electric stun guns that has started making body-worn cameras for police, says orders for its cameras have tripled between 2013 and 2014.
Early-adopting departments say they’ve gotten clearer pictures of what happens when police physically confront suspects. Departments that use the cameras – including Davidson – say the cameras make police more professional and subjects less combative.
“We can show video where someone will realize that they’re being videotaped and the behavior changes,” said Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller. “I’ve had citizens come in and say, ‘I wasn’t speeding; I didn’t run that stop sign’ and then we share (the video) with citizens, and it changes. Or attorneys will go to their client and say, ‘Look, you just need to plead.’ ”
Police in Rialto, Calif., were some of the first to get the cameras in 2013. Afterward, they saw an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers and hope lawsuits against the department also will decrease. Few cases with evidence from body cameras have made it to courtrooms across the nation, but prosecutors and defense attorneys say the cameras will mean more solid evidence for obtaining a conviction or proving a person’s innocence.
Fort Worth (Texas) Police Chief Jeff Halstead, whose department began using the cameras three years ago, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that in two instances, officers’ jobs have been saved because of body cameras, including an altercation between two officers and the occupant of a car.
“If we would have just relied on the dash-cam video from about 80 feet away, it looks like we violated someone’s civil rights,” Halstead told the newspaper. “The fact that we have two officers with cameras on, you could clearly see they were being assaulted by an occupant of the vehicle.”
Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray told the Observer that the cameras mean more solid evidence will make its way into courtrooms.
“If an officer has a camera on his lapel, there’s going to be stronger evidence,” Murray said.
Following its pilot program, CMPD has $500,000 to buy body cameras – enough to equip two divisions, or nearly 200 officers, by early next year. The department hasn’t released a timetable for when all nearly 1,900 sworn officers will have the cameras.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have declined to speak in detail about the cameras, saying they are still picking a vendor, training officers and refining policies.
Civil rights activists and some defense attorneys say a lack of public access to camera video could hinder the positive impact on policing.
CMPD’s draft policy would prevent people who have been recorded or members of the public from accessing the camera footage, shielding the videos behind laws protecting personnel information and evidence in a criminal case.
“It’s almost like giving us a body camera with a lens cap still on it,” said John Barnett, the founder of True Healing Under God, a civil rights organization that takes up causes in Charlotte and other parts of the southeast. Barnett has lobbied for the release of camera footage in the wake of the fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell by CMPD officer Randall Kerrick last year.
“The camera is not for the safety of the officers, it’s for the safety of the citizens,” he said. “I think everything should be open to the public. Don’t give us the camera and put stipulations on it.”
Debate over access
CMPD’s planned body camera guidelines fall short of recommendations published in separate papers by a police think tank and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Police Executive Research Forum, the think tank, wrote in its paper on cameras that it “generally recommends a broad disclosure policy to promote agency transparency and accountability.”
The ACLU emphasizes the need for police to respect privacy rights, but also said departments should release video footage about controversial events.
“Flagged recordings are those for which there is the highest likelihood of misconduct, and thus the ones where public oversight is most needed,” the ACLU says in its paper. “... Recordings should be publicly disclosable, because in such cases the need for oversight outweighs the privacy interests at stake.”
In North Carolina, there is disagreement over whether body camera video can be made public.
Police agencies argue that state law prohibits them from releasing the footage because it would be a part of an officer’s personnel file and a possible criminal investigation.
“We are bound to abide by what the laws say,” said CMPD Maj. Steve Willis, who oversees the department’s camera program.
But others disagree on what the law says.
Jonathan Jones, an attorney and the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, said that state . law doesn’t automatically exempt police camera footage from public scrutiny.
“The discussion about this isn’t about it being a tool for reviewing officers, but a tool for building that trust and accountability for the public,” Jones said. “Once we start declaring that these are personnel records, we completely usurp their utility as far as building accountability and trust with the public.”
Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina, worries that police agencies will release only video that benefits them.
“What we don’t want to see is police making a case-by-case determination without any clear standards,” she said.
Nationally, police critics also question whether body cameras will even make a difference, after a New York grand jury decided last week not to indict an officer who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold, despite video of the incident.
With cameras, complaints fall
Departments have used dashboard cameras in their cruisers for decades and officers wear a portable microphone that records them and people nearby. But a camera stuck to the windshield of a car has obvious limitations, police say.
When Ferrell was shot and killed by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer last year, a dash cam captured some of the events leading up to the shooting. But most of the encounter wasn’t there – including the fatal shots, according to Ferrell’s family and other people who have seen the video.
If the three officers present during the shooting had been wearing body cameras, more of the encounter most likely would have been captured. Kerrick has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Ferrell’s killing and will go on trial next year. He’s scheduled to make an initial appearance Thursday.
The body cameras take advantage of the miniaturization of camera and storage technology. Most systems include a battery pack and storage device, coupled with a lens, although some have all the parts in one package.
CMPD policy would prohibit an officer from erasing or editing camera footage. In some departments, including Davidson, the video is uploaded to a third-party server and can’t be changed by anyone in the department. CMPD hasn’t said how it will store the video.
The cameras range in cost from about $400 to $1,200, but supporters say the price would be offset by reducing complaints against officers and lawsuits against the department.
In the year before the Rialto police began wearing body cameras, they received 24 official complaints against officers, Chief Tony Farrar told the Observer. The year of the experiment, they had three. Instances where officers used their hands or weapons to subdue suspects decreased by more than half – from 61 to 25.
CMPD has paid out more than a million dollars in the past year after people were hurt or killed by officers in confrontations that would have been captured on a body camera.
Among the recent settlements, the city in January agreed to pay $700,000 to the family of a cellphone tower repairman fatally shot on the job in 2006 after police were dispatched to a potential break-in.
In Davidson, Officer Bockler, who has never pulled his gun in his year with the department, says the body cameras haven’t led to a wholesale change in how he does his job. Like other officers, he’s already been accustomed to his patrol car dash cam and the microphone he wears for it.
“This job is a professional job,” he said. “The camera doesn’t change my approach to anything. It might change other people’s approach to me.”