2015-05-06 / News

County police to test body cameras in pilot program

By Jim McConnell

The county’s police department will launch a pilot program later this month to equip more than 20 officers with body cameras, giving its leaders an opportunity to study the technology before they commit to a department-wide initiative.

According to Police Chief Thierry Dupuis, the department is still putting the finishing touches on a draft policy governing use of the cameras. Officers will then receive training to comply with the new policy before the program goes live.

“The devil’s in the details, and there are a lot of details that still need to be worked out,” Dupuis said. “It’s not just as simple as turning on the cameras.”

The NAACP’s Chesterfield chapter has advocated for the local police to embrace body cameras for almost a year. Its president, L.J. McCoy, told the Board of Supervisors last week that the department also should require officers to undergo sensitivity training to assuage concerns within the black community.

“This is becoming a big issue,” McCoy said. “We have to make sure we have a community that is committed to fairness and equality. Looking the other way is not an option.”

The chorus supporting use of body cameras has reached a crescendo over the past year, following a number of highly publicized police-involved deaths that prompted questions about whether officers routinely use excessive force when dealing with black men.

A bystander’s cellphone video captured a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, shooting and killing Walter Scott last month as the unarmed 50-year-old fled on foot from a traffic stop. The officer, Michael Slager, wasn’t wearing a body camera, but he was charged with murder after the video surfaced and contradicted his account.

The death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in the custody of Baltimore Police, sparked riots that brought out the National Guard last week. A city prosecutor announced Friday that six officers will face charges related to Gray’s death.

Jim Holland, the lone black member of the Board of Supervisors, said it’s important for county leaders to be proactive and address citizens’ concerns instead of waiting until something tragic happens here.

“The No. 1 thing you do is listen and gauge the community’s level of comfort with its officers,” added Holland, who noted that Chesterfield has an “outstanding” police force.

Some see body cameras, which are small and light enough to be attached to an officer’s uniform without inhibiting movement, as a way to hold the police accountable for the way they interact with the public.

Conversely, law enforcement officials think the cameras can be valuable in documenting inappropriate citizen behavior and cutting down on false complaints against officers.

“It’s a very positive tool – it just has to be used in the right way,” said Kevin Carroll, a county police sergeant and president of the state Fraternal Order of Police.

Carroll said that officers must be given the discretion to turn the camera on and off to preserve their privacy and avoid violating the rights of citizens who could be doing nothing more than waiting in front of an officer in line at a convenience store.

Reminded that some citizens assume that the police want to be able to turn off the cameras to avoid recording inappropriate behavior, Carroll pointed out that Chesterfield has trusted its police department for 100 years without deploying body cameras.

“We hold high standards for our officers, and they hold high standards for themselves,” he said. “Occasionally we may come across someone who makes a mistake, and we make sure they are no longer put in a position of public trust.”

Carroll sits on a security panel appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The panel held its first meeting last month and discussed the multiple challenges – most notably, cost – associated with equipping police officers with body cameras.

Police in Henrico and Hanover counties already use body cameras. Richmond City Council is considering whether to approve funding for cameras in its budget for fiscal year 2016.

Dupuis estimated that it would cost about $500,000 to implement a body camera program for 350 officers in Chesterfield.

“It’s a lot of money, and I’m a pretty frugal guy,” he added. “I’m not going to ask the Board of Supervisors for the money unless I know this product is the very best we can get.”

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