The Charleston Police Department has applied for a $29,000 Department of Justice grant to begin outfitting officers with wearable video cameras that would record their interactions with the public. We sat down with Chief Greg Mullen to ask a few questions about the initiative.
Why does the chief want cameras?
People tend to behave better when they know they're being recorded, he says. Video footage can be used as evidence against a defendant in court, and Mullen says it can cut down on false complaints against police officers — or prove when officers really are abusing their power.
"When we have an encounter with the public, it helps as a dual-accountability process," Mullen says. "A lot of times, people come in and they'll complain about the way an officer behaved or about something that they did, and what we have been able to determine across the country is, when departments are utilizing this technology, their citizen complaints go down significantly because obviously when you're being recorded, you're on your best behavior — not only from a citizen's perspective but from an officer's perspective."
How do the cameras work?
Kind of like a GoPro. There are several models on the market now that can be mounted either at the center of the chest, on a lapel, or on a pair of eyeglasses. The idea is that an officer turns the camera on every time he or she enters a crime scene, confronts a person on the sidewalk, or pulls someone over, and the camera starts recording audio and video that can later be used as evidence. Mullen says the department hasn't picked out a make and model yet, but he'll be looking for one that's comfortable to wear and that records high-quality video.
Here's a promotional video from Taser International showing off the features of their $299 Axon body camera:
When would the cameras be running?
Mullen says he's still working on a protocol. In many cases, he says the officer would ask a person's permission before hitting the record button. But in other cases, such as an assault in progress, the officer likely would not have to ask permission.
$29,000? Is that enough to put cameras on an entire police force?
No. The initial grant money would only be enough for 21 body cameras, which Mullen says would be used by officers in the downtown area at first. If the cameras prove effective, Mullen will seek out more funding for additional cameras, with a long-term goal of purchasing 100 to 110 cameras that could be shared by the entire department.
What about privacy?
Mullen says he is aware of the American Civil Liberties Union's concerns about privacy, particularly when it comes to recording in people's homes, and he will seek to address those concerns while writing protocol for the cameras' use. He also says the department would have a "very short window of retention," meaning that archives of video footage wouldn't be kept on file for years and years after the fact.
Can news reporters use the footage?
Yes. Just like 911 dispatch recordings and car-mounted dash cam footage, video from body cameras would be considered public record and could be obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. However, as with other FOIA requests, police would have the right to decline a request for video that is being used in an ongoing investigation.
When can I weigh in on the topic?
In order to apply for the grant, the police department is required to hold a public input hearing. That hearing has been scheduled for the July 15 meeting of Charleston City Council. The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. in City Hall (80 Broad St.).