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Eyes on cops - and you

Chances are the next time you’re pulled over by a cop, a camera will be recording the officer’s behavior. And yours.

After lengthy delays, many of the major Atlanta area police departments are spending the money to buy police body cameras. Officials are promising more transparency on the part of law enforcement, and greater trust between cops and the community.

The body cameras “will strengthen trust among our officers and the communities they serve by providing transparency to officer interactions,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed this past week in announcing a purchase.

Last year, one after another metro Atlanta police agency announced plans to provide officers with body cameras. But few shelled out the money, and relatively few officers wear cameras today.

That’s about to change, in a big way.

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The purchases come on the heels of a deadly summer that has ratcheted up tensions nationally between law enforcement and the black community.

Early enthusiasm for the devices had run into a quagmire of considerations: greater-than-expected costs, especially for the long-term storage of countless hours of footage, as well as an array of ethical, legal and privacy questions. Can police take cameras inside people’s homes? Should the video be released to anyone?

Moreover, police officials saw body camera technology evolving at breakneck speed, which made it difficult to decide when to jump in. The delays were felt in police agencies across the country.

This, however, appears to be the summer when Atlanta area police make good on their promise.

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council approved a $5.6 million purchase of 1,200 cameras and video storage equipment. DeKalb recently approved a $740,000 purchase of 600 body cameras, expected to come online this fall.

Cobb, for its part, recently ordered another 100 cameras, greatly expanding its supply of 130. Clayton ordered 200 of them, enough to outfit its entire patrol division.

A law that took effect July 1 made it easier to move forward, police officials said. It limits the amount of time the footage must be preserved, which curbs the storage costs.

If the purchases go through, hundreds of additional cops in metro Atlanta will soon be wearing body cameras.

Will body cameras usher in a new era of policing in metro Atlanta?

“I’m optimistic. We’re at a low point with some communities having faith in law enforcement,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.

“I think it will only help.”

A parade of tragedies

While encouraged by the potential of body cameras, Francys Johnson, the NAACP Georgia chapter president, said the devices hardly guarantee a level playing field between police and the public, or justice.

Police have been using dashboard cameras in patrol cars for years now. “The use of cameras has not prevented the crisis we are in now,” Johnson said.

He added, “If we don’t fix community-based policing and improve the relationship between police and the community, then all these body cameras will be doing is recording the deaths of more citizens at the hands of police.”

Over the past year, the urgency for body cameras has grown amid a national parade of tragedies between police and the public: ambush killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge; controversial police-related deaths in Minneapolis and Milwaukee; riot squads squaring off with angry protesters.

Video is increasingly shaping people’s opinion of the police, especially bystander videos of violent clashes between officers and black suspects. Several police officials pointed to the gripping cell phone video taken by a Minnesota woman. As her boyfriend bled to death beside her, she narrated her version of how police shot him just moments earlier.

Police want their own video accounts of these charged incidents, said Sgt. Dana Pierce, spokesman for the Cobb County Police Department. Some talk about a new era in policing following the recent killing of officers, one in which police need to better protect themselves and the integrity of their work.

“It has heightened the conversation,” Pierce said.

The body cam world of tomorrow

Cobb County offers a glimpse into the future of police body cameras.

County police have 130 body cameras, more than just about any Atlanta area department. They started wearing them about two years ago, and now outfit about a third of patrol officers.

Beyond that, all 62 officers in the county’s schools wear body cameras, keeping an electronic eye on some 114,000 students in 116 schools. And some of the smaller city departments, such as Powder Springs and Smyrna, have cameras.

Cobb Patrol Officer Jarod Peer said he favors the body cameras. The 34-year-old Marine vet has been wearing a camera clipped to his dark blue uniform for about a month. He said it makes him feel more confident that, whatever happens, there is an accurate accounting of his police work.

Peer is accustomed to being on video. The Cobb force has had dash cameras in their police cars for about two decades.

“I don’t change my behavior because I’m on a camera,” said Peer, who works out of the 3rd Precinct around Vinings, Smyrna and Marietta.

The value of cameras became clear during a recent incident in which Peer dealt with a man resisting arrest after a domestic dispute. The man fought Peer, grabbing the officer’s arms and scratching him. The fight was captured on the body camera of a fellow officer.

Once the suspect was in the cruiser, Peer’s dash camera captured the man threatening the officer’s life, Peer said.

“You realize you’re being recorded,” Peer told him.

The man reiterated the threat.

Peer charged the man with felony obstruction, and the district attorney’s office requested the video for the prosecution.

Some officers, however, don’t like having their every encounter recorded on camera. This month, when the Boston Police Department asked for volunteers to start its body camera program, not a single officer stepped forward.

Each month, a Cobb police supervisor randomly reviews the footage logged by Peer and the other officers. Peer’s review for July, obtained by the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, rated his courtesy as “excellent.”

The Cobb County Police Department allowed an AJC reporter to ride along with Peer during a recent shift. By lunchtime he’d employed the body camera 10 times.

Peer flubbed the start of the camera during the arrest of a homeless woman on a warrant for shoplifting. He pushed the button down but didn’t hold it long enough. He missed about a minute of the arrest before he checked again and started the unit correctly.

In another incident, Peer pulled over a woman in a white Corolla for a tail light being out. He didn’t inform her she was on camera. Policy says he doesn’t have to.

Afterward, the woman, Ifechimere Ngaoka, said the cameras could help address the “racial issue” between police and the black community. She is black; Peer is white.

“The police are profiling them wrongly,” said Ngaoka, 43, of Austell. “This could help clear that up.”

Cobb prosecutors say the camera footage quickly cuts through the “he said-she said” conflicts between officers and suspects. That leads to quicker resolutions and earlier plea deals.

“(People) look at the video … and it’s over,” said Jason Saliba, deputy chief assistant district attorney.

In the Cobb schools, officers regularly use the cameras to record and investigate incidents, whether it’s a fight, a disruptive student or somebody trespassing on school grounds, said Wayne Pickett, the school district police captain. When the parent of a student contacts the school, often after hearing only their child’s version of what happened, the video can help de-escalate tensions.

The Gwinnett Police Department is on the other end of the body cam spectrum. It’s still reviewing its options. Cpl. Dean Washington, assigned to research the cameras nine months ago, said he has encountered a head-spinning number of issues.

Some cameras, for instance, clip to the officer’s shirt, while others are inside the uniform and peek out of a button hole. Some turn on manually, some automatically.

Then there is the data storage. Some systems store the video on a department server, others store it at the vendor. Some use a Cloud-based web solution.

“We want to ensure that we do not buy 500 (body cameras) that do not fit our needs and cannot be supported by our county IT,” Washington said.

Body cameras and you

Say you’re driving from Cobb to Atlanta. In the world of police body cameras, you would be traveling through different policies in each place, not to mention the cities in between.

Cobb’s policy, for instance, offers some general guidelines as to when an officer should turn on the camera (“all self-initiated activity, calls for service and other official contacts”), and a few scenarios when an officer is justified to leave it off.

Atlanta’s policy offers a more detailed list of scenarios to record, and several situations when an officer can turn off the camera. But should an Atlanta officer turn it off during an incident, the policy says the officer must document the reason in a written report.

Meanwhile, the footage from incidents, in many cases, could become available to anyone who requests it. That raises a slew of questions regarding public access and disclosure.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the technology and policy group Upturn recently released a scorecard on body camera policies across the country. Researchers found a “nationwide failure” to protect civil rights and privacy.

Atlanta received mixed marks. The policy was praised for shielding the camera footage from any tampering. But the city was criticized for not clearly making the policy available on its website, and not making the video footage available to people filing complaints against officers.

In each of the past two years, the Georgia Legislature has tweaked the laws on body cameras. Last year, lawmakers made it legal for police to take the cameras into people’s homes. Beforehand, they had to ask permission.

This year, lawmakers limited the amount of time police must retain the records. The new law says that recordings must generally be retained for six months, but recordings important to criminal investigations should be kept for 30 months. The law was intended to keep down the costs of storing data. Beforehand, numerous departments thought they had to retain all footage for five years. Even so, Atlanta estimates data storage could cost over a million dollars a year.

As more body cameras hit the streets, more controversies are expected. Johnson of the NAACP criticized Wisconsin officials for not releasing the video of a fatal police shooting of a black man in Milwaukee. That shooting has prompted days of rioting.

Several metro Atlanta officials, for their part, have said body camera video would only be released at the conclusion of investigations. But here in Georgia, some fatal police-related shootings are elevated to the GBI for investigation. That agency has released videos in a half dozen of police-related cases before the investigation concluded.

“We believe as much information about the incident should be released, so long as it doesn’t impede the investigation,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan.

Such transparency, he said, can head off any public unrest. It also counters the chatter on social media, which he said invariably “attempts to hijack the dialogue (with) all manner of speculation and manipulation and flat-out lies.”

Keenan added, “The video is the video.”

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