Our View: Body camera panel’s product better than its process

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Like some members of the committee drafting a policy for Elizabeth City police officers’ use of body-worn cameras, we, too, weren’t surprised by the low turnout at two public forums on the cameras last week. Unlike committee members, however, we won’t completely blame public apathy for why there were fewer than a handful of citizens in attendance at both events.

We believe the committee itself is partly to blame for the poor public participation. More specifically, we blame the overly secretive process the committee’ has pursued up until now.

Prior to last week’s forums, there had been a near-total blackout of information from city police officials about the 20-member committee or its work. Tommy McMasters, a member of the committee, recently spoke to The Daily Advance about the committee, but the top leadership in the police department hasn’t. Police Chief Eddie Buffaloe, who appointed the committee’s members, in fact twice refused to release their names to the newspaper. Only in late November — a week before the forums — did city officials finally relent and release the names of those serving on the panel. They did so only after being pressed with an official request for the information under the state’s Open Records law.

The police department’s grudging nod at transparency about the body-worn camera policy is both ironic and troubling. We thought the whole idea of officers wearing body cameras was to make police work more transparent to the public, not less so.

Yes, the police department posted a survey asking the public about body-worn cameras on its Facebook page. However, the fact the committee already had a draft policy written – before the first public forum was even held – suggests public participation wasn’t a top priority when it came to writing the body-camera rules. Forums that are genuinely interested in community feedback are typically held before a policy-writing body starts its work, not after the work has already been done. Last weeks’ forums had the feel of a box being checked after the fact instead of a real attempt to solicit community input on what has the potential to be a controversial issue.

Moreover, the admission by a police official working with the committee that the police department feels at risk for not already having a body-worn camera policy in place, and that Buffaloe could review a final draft of the policy as early as the end of this month, suggests the committee’s priority has been writing a policy, not getting public feedback on one.

All that said, we agree with most of the recommendations the committee is making in its draft policy. It’s important for officers to turn on their body-worn cameras for nearly all their contacts with the public, but especially for those contacts with the potential to create controversy. It’s also important to allow an officer to turn off his camera at a citizen’s request — as long as the officer states why the camera is being turned off and he’s given the discretion to turn it back on if the situation changes.

Like the committee, we, agree it’s important to allow officers to review the video footage recorded by their body-worn camera prior to writing their incident reports. Accuracy should always be paramount. At the same time, there should be some process to ensure that someone besides the officer whose camera recorded the footage reviews it beforehand, and that all those who review the video can be easily identifiable through an audit trail.

And like the committee, we think video footage shot with a body-worn camera should be stored on a police department computer as long as possible. The panel thinks a minimum of 90 days is adequate for most video, longer for footage of controversial events.

On the thorny issue of when video of a crime is released to the public, the committee apparently is leaving that up to the District Attorney’s Office. It’s also recommending the city attorney make the call on release of any video purporting to show a police officer engaged in questionable conduct.

The district attorney and city attorney probably should make the call on release of video showing alleged crimes or police misconduct; mandating immediate release in a policy could be problematic.

At the same time, making release discretionary can also be problematic. Just ask the former police chief in Chicago and the city’s other officials now under fire for delaying for more than a year the release of a police car dash-cam video showing a white officer’s fatal shooting of a black man who was not posing a threat to the officer. Release of body-worn camera video should always be based on what’s in the public’s best interest, not what’s best for law enforcement. Quicker release should be the norm, not the exception.

Our complaint about the closed development process notwithstanding, we think the draft body-worn camera policy the committee has come up with, at least what we’ve seen so far, could be workable for our city’s police department.