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Public Eye: What is the state of NC’s Body-Worn Cameras?

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Public Eye: What is the state of NC’s Body-Worn Cameras?

They were frontline workers— individuals who woke up at the break of dawn to keep a community afloat within its darkest days. They were fathers and mothers in loving families, sisters and brothers, congregation members, and community leaders. Now, their names have turned into slogans, the violent crimes committed against them echoing up and down the streets in protest.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1,004 people of all races were shot or killed by police in 2019. Including many infamous cases, such as the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Breonna Taylor in early 2020, issues of police brutality were put in a national spotlight throughout the past year, highlighting the many shortcomings of municipal justice systems. More recently, the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C., has put issues surrounding the storage and release of body-worn camera footage in police departments at the national forefront once again.

Body-worn cameras are a relatively new system and a rapidly improving technology— one that is still, unfortunately, a mystery to many members of the public. City officials and members of the police force all across the Triad are still engaged in a fight against misinformation regarding the legislation surrounding body-worn cameras and police surveillance policies— one that they wish to fix with policies to permit increased transparency.

“We were the first department on the East Coast to be fully implemented with these body-worn cameras back in 2013, I believe,” commented Cody St. Pierre, president of the Greensboro Police Officers Association, in a statement to Fox 8.

In a partnered attempt by the Greensboro Police Foundation, a non-profit formed by local business and community leaders, and the Greensboro Police Department (GPD), funds were raised to deploy 125 AXON Flex cameras in early 2013. On Sept. 18, 2013, 160 additional AXON Flex cameras were added to the program, along with 10 AXON body cameras and a three-year program, with the intention of further protecting GPD officers. Currently, there are a reported 705 body-worn cameras and 230 vehicle-mounted cameras in GPD deployment.

“Police organizations today must deploy technologies that promote effectiveness, efficiency, and public confidence,” stated Former Greensboro Chief of Police Ken Miller in a 2013 statement to AXON. “Body-worn video systems accomplish all and help raise the bar on officer performance. Our latest acquisition of the AXON flex cameras, mounting options, and service enables us to equip all 500 of our field-based officers and tactical units with body-worn video cameras covering all shifts.”

Winston-Salem followed suit in July of 2014 with a similar body and vehicle-mounted camera program with AXON. Initially purchasing 293 AXON cameras with a three-year subscription to the program to gauge public reaction, they completed a second purchase on Nov. 26, 2014, to equip the entire patrol division with this technology following positive feedback. With 623 AXON body-worn video cameras and a five-year subscription to the program being purchased, a robust police surveillance system was created in the process.

“The results we saw from our initial deployment of body cameras were very encouraging and included better interactions between our officers and the public,” said Former Winston-Salem Chief of Police Barry Roundtree in a 2014 statement to AXON. “We are looking forward to having continued success with the AXON body-worn cameras and technology from TASER as we deploy them to the entire police department’s patrol division.”

The cost of this all? 

According to Lieutenant Adam Bell of the Greensboro Police Department, roughly under $200,000 is annually spent on-vehicle cameras, and around $350,000 is annually spent on body-worn cameras. 

In a presentation hosted by the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission (GCJAC), Bell honed in on the recording policies, costs, and storage policies implemented in GPD’s body-worn camera and police surveillance programs in an attempt to provide additional clarity on these prominent issues.

“The [Greensboro Police] department uses a camera called the AXON Body-2,” Bell stated. This standard issue is assigned to officers ranked Lieutenant and below and is required to be utilized by officers working in a uniformed capacity in any assignments that necessitates regular contact with citizens.

The AXON Body-2 offers over 12 hours of battery life and records 40 frames per second (fps), allowing a GPD officer operating on the standard 11-hour schedule to record their full shift if needed. With a 142-degree diagonal field of view and a 200-degree horizontal field of view, the camera permits the officer to record slightly less than their normal field of vision. This is a drastic improvement from the original AXON Flex cameras implemented in 2013, which only had a 70-degree field of view. Though the standard recording is done on a low-resolution setting to make storage of these large files more efficient, it is still possible to visualize both people and actions in this setting.

Additionally, the surveillance technology is a part of the program, a storage system that allows all footage captured by the body-worn camera (BWC) to be uploaded and stored for a limited time. Though all the footage recorded by the BWC is collected by the end of the day, categorized and labeled by the officer’s name and the associated case or event number, it is considered the property of the Greensboro Police Department, only accessible for official purposes. Each officer is responsible for ensuring that their recordings are uploaded to the software, noting in incident reports or citations of what was captured by the BWC if necessary. The footage is considered neither public nor personnel property by general statutes. 

Vehicle-mounted cameras (VMC) abide by similar systems— the AXON Fleet is the standard issue for vehicle-mounted cameras, working in conjunction with body-worn cameras. The VMCs possess triggers that allow the BWCs to start automatically recording the situation. Similar to the BWCs, the footage is all uploaded to the same software.

Uploaded recordings are only retained for a limited period of time due to limitations on cloud storage, the length of retention varying based on the content of the recording. While recordings entailing non-criminal citizen contact, vehicle crashes involving warnings or infractions, or non-citizen involvement are only retained for 90 days, recordings entailing criminal charges of any sort are retained for three years. Additionally, field training videos are retained for a year, and administrative investigations are retained indefinitely. 

Though the protocols for classification are elaborated upon in general statute and Greensboro Police Department’s Professional Standard 15.11, videos that could serve of evidentiary value, possibly resulting in a criminal charge, are generally retained for three years. However, non-evidentiary recordings are only retained for 90 days. 

“The body-worn camera must be activated to record a citizen contact that becomes adversarial or any situation the officer believes would be appropriate to document the encounter,” stated Bell. 

Situations that officers are not required to record throughout the entire duration of the procedure include DWI checkpoints or license checkpoints. However, if these situations become adversarial, officers are required to activate their BWC. Another time officers are prohibited from recording is when they are taking statements from juvenile witnesses or victims, as well as from victims of crimes of sexual nature to ensure the privacy of such individuals. However, if an incident that required footage was not recorded or a recording was missing, an administrative investigation would occur, and appropriate disciplinary action would be taken accordingly.

Missing recordings are not the only complications that could occur within the process of storing and retaining BWC footage. With the Andrew Brown Jr. case, the public release of footage was another complication and flaw with the BWC system brought to the national forefront.

Andrew Brown Jr., 42, was leaving his driveway on April 21, his hands on the steering wheel, when sheriff deputies in a truck blocked his way out in an attempt to serve a drug-related search warrant. Within 30 seconds, deputies ran up to the vehicle and opened fire on Brown unprovoked. Brown passed away while attempting to drive away from getting shot, making no known attempts at retaliation. Brown’s family attorney commented that the family lost count of how many shots were fired in the span of the 20-second body camera video that they were provided.

“My dad got executed just by trying to save his own life,” stated one of Brown’s sons in an official briefing. “The officers were not [harmed by] him at all. It’s just messed up how this happened.”

 His grief is shared by religious leaders and social justice workers statewide, who are currently fighting to release the full body camera footage and BWC reform, which would prevent similar incidents from occurring. There are allegedly six longer video files that provide a fuller picture of what happened in the fatal shooting, five of which are from deputy BWCs, and one of which is from the police cruiser dashcam. However, none of this footage has been publicly released, and Brown’s family was only provided with a 20-second video. Furthermore, courts declared that the full footage would not be publicly released within the thirty days following the incident.

“They determined what was pertinent,” attorney Ben Crump commented at a news conference regarding Brown’s death. “We want all of it because that’s what transparency is. Let us see it with our own eyes. We don’t need you to interpret it for us.”

This “lack of transparency,” according to Sheriff Tommy Wooten II of Pasquotank County, is not something that local municipalities can change. In a statement to local news sources, he revealed his support for laws that would allow more transparency with body-worn camera footage release, as well as his desire for the public to see the full, unedited video. A single law passed nearly five years ago restricts such forms of the public release of BWC footage— House Bill 972.

House Bill 972 was passed in July 2016 under Former Governor Pat McCrory, declaring that BWC footage would no longer be public record and that police and sheriff’s departments do not have the authority to release the footage on their own. McCrory stated that this reform was intended to protect officers and “increase transparency” towards the police department, claiming to aim for the codification of a new process for footage release. 

Stating that only individuals in the video or family members, spouses, and attorneys of individuals in the video can watch it by asking the law enforcement agency in possession of the recording, there are heavy limitations to gaining access to BWC footage. Additionally, copies of the footage cannot be made outside of the video viewing under the supervision of the agency. Additionally, for members of the public to gain access to this footage, the Superior Court must be petitioned in a request for the footage— a process that costs a couple of hundred dollars in itself. Following a hearing, a judge would determine whether or not the release would subsequently occur.

Democratic lawmakers are currently debating HB 972, stating that the law only increases public mistrust towards municipal police departments and that the public has a right to be both updated and accurately informed. In light of these re-emerging concerns in the wake of Andrew Brown’s shooting, lawmakers are attempting to pass Senate Bill 510, which would flip the House Bill 972 decision on its head. 

Senate Bill 510, which was filed two weeks before Brown’s murder, requires BWC and VMC footage to be released within 48 hours of an incident unless a law enforcement agency obtained a court order within this period of time to restrict the release of the surveillance. 

“Accountability requires transparency, and the law, as currently written, delays that transparency,” stated Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg, one of the bill sponsors.

Senator Paul Lowe of Forsyth County has also previously made similar motions, petitioning the North Carolina General Assembly to grant Winston-Salem city officials the authority to view police body-camera footage. 

Greensboro city officials are also making similar motions to gain the same result— the timely release of unedited BWC footage. Shortly following the publicization of the Andrew Brown case, the Greensboro Police Officer Association (GPOA) penned an open letter to Governor Roy Cooper and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson on Apr. 28. 

“We seek transparency!” Cody St. Pierre, President of the GPOA, stated in the open letter. “This trend of rush to judgment and immediate vilification of police officers based on inaccuracies, speculation, rumor, politics, and social media rants is dangerous, unfair, and it threatens the ranks of good police officers in Greensboro, the State of North Carolina, and throughout the country.”

The letter also revealed that GPOA representatives had been closely working with state legislators for many years to overturn current legislation regarding the release of body camera footage, including House Bill 972. Under the current legislation, too many obstacles and delays have led to the untimely release of BWC footage, raising concerns about the transparency and credibility of both our local law enforcement and state legislators.

“We are not asking for special treatment or free reign to trample on the rights of citizens,” concluded St. Pierre. “Instead, we seek fair treatment and appropriate legislation so that members of the GPOA can rely on their training, experience, and proof— in the form of BWC footage— rather than being subject to ridicule, derision, and even threats that have no basis in fact or law.”

Chief Brian James of the Greensboro Police Department shares similar sentiments to strive for transparency and increased public trust towards the police department. 

“We view this program as an important part in determining the facts around incidents involving police officers and the public,” he said, referring to GPD’s rigorous BWC program. “I support the release of BWC footage in critical incidents or in instances where it is necessary to maintain public trust and confidence.”

In the weeks following Andrew Brown Jr.’s death, peaceful protests and demonstrations occurred both in and out of Elizabeth City, as faith leaders, community reformers, and activists engaged in marches to show solidarity with the Brown family, fighting for the full tape to be released in a timely manner.

“Inept. Incompetent. Incapable of fixing this,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President of Repairers of the Breach, a religious activism organization. “We need independent prosecutors, now. Release the tape, the whole tape, to everybody.”

Members across an array of faiths continue to join together in the coming weeks as the fight for justice to be served on Andrew Brown Jr.’s case continues. However, they all walk behind the same sign, with the same motto engraved upon their lips: truth, transparency, and accountability.

Habin Hwang is a 17-year-old Guilford County Schools Early College student at Guilford College.

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