by Paul Bowers
The Charleston Police Department plans to purchase about 120 wearable video cameras for its officers by June, with a long-term goal of outfitting every officer on the force. But before that happens, the department will have to decide which camera model to purchase. The CPD will also have to lay down some ground rules.
The department started exploring the option of outfitting its officers with wearable video recorders (WVRs) in late 2013, and it is currently seeking input from the American Civil Liberties Union and the general public in order to craft a policy for use of the recording devices. Worn on an officer's uniform near the center of the chest, the cameras are touted as creating what CPD officials call "mutual accountability" for both citizens and police officers, providing an objective view of interactions between police and the public. Video and audio recordings from the cameras could also be used as evidence in court. News reporters would be able to request footage from the cameras under the state Freedom of Information Act, much the same as footage currently available from police vehicles' dashboard cameras.
Police officials have stressed that, whichever camera is purchased and whatever policies are adopted, a WVR is not a perfect tool. For example, since officers are trained to angle the gun side of their body away from combative subjects, a camera mounted on the chest will not always capture what the officer is seeing. Footage quality can also decrease in low-light situations or when an officer is running. And while a current draft of a WVR policy requires officers to turn on their cameras before most civilian interactions, the draft also acknowledges that in some situations it may be impossible or dangerous for an officer to stop what he or she is doing and toggle the camera on.
If you would like to give input about the department's WVR policy, which is still being revised, e-mail Public Information Officer Charles Francis at firstname.lastname@example.org. CPD provided the following draft policy Tuesday afternoon:
Under the terms of the draft policy, a citizen who objects to being recorded in a non-arrest or non-investigative encounter would be able to tell an officer to turn the camera off. However, officers would keep the camera rolling during traffic stops, field interviews, "police service," responses to a call for service where a crime is involved or conflict is anticipated, and "any other time deemed appropriate by the operating officer." An officer would also be allowed to mute the camera while discussing a case with another officer after an encounter has stabilized.
Officers would be instructed to avoid recording videos of people who are nude and in places "where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, such as locker rooms, dressing rooms, or restrooms," except in cases where "articulable exigent circumstances exist."
Officers would be required to upload their video to a server at the end of a shift, and they would not be allowed to edit or erase any recordings. Recordings that are "non-investigative, non-arrest, and are not part of any internal investigation" would be retained for 14 days. Recordings that involve municipal court offenses would be stored for four years. Recordings of offenses including murder, manslaughter, criminal sexual conduct, arson, armed robbery, and driving under the influence would be stored for seven years or until a person is released, in accordance with the S.C. Preservation of Evidence Act, S.C. Code 17-28-320(C). Recordings that involve General Sessions offenses not listed in the S.C. Preservation of Evidence Act (that is, felony and misdemeanor offenses carrying a penalty of greater than 30 days' imprisonment or a $500 fine) would be stored for 10 years.
The Charleston Police Department has secured more than $100,000 to outfit its officers with cameras and purchase any necessary back-end software. That total includes donations from the Charleston Police Fund and Daniel Island Community Foundation, as well as a $29,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant.
According to Lt. Jason Emanuele, the department is currently trying to choose one of 10 different WVR models. Some models include an automatic infrared light intensifier for nighttime recording. In some instances, a night-vision camera may be able to see more at a crime scene than the officer's naked eye. In other cases, an officer's wider field of vision may allow him to see more than the camera captures.
Here are the models currently being considered:
• Digital-Ally FirstVu HD
• Digital-Ally FirstVu 100
• Muvi HD
• Muvi Micro
• Taser Axon Body
• Taser Axon Flex
• VieVu LE2
• VieVu LE3
• TeamIntel Cobra
• TeamIntel Viper