MAY 13, 2015: Powder Springs police officer Josh Chastain places a Digital Ally body camera in his top pocket before going out on traffic patrol on Wednesday, May 13. The department has been using the cameras for six months. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

The promise and pitfalls of cops and cameras

Body cameras have rapidly become the No. 1 response to the rupture in police relations with the public in post-Ferguson America. Hundreds of cops in metro Atlanta will soon be wearing them, and the chances are increasing that the next officer who stops you in traffic will be recording his behavior and yours.

The police are responding to a clear demand from the public: recent polls show as many as nine in 10 Americans support the use of the cameras on cops. But people’s enthusiasm for the technology may fade once the police camera is trained on them.

Those who come into contact with police — during a traffic stop, neighborhood disagreement or domestic dispute — should know that the video record of their every word and action will, in many cases, be available to anyone who requests it.

Think nosy neighbor. Think YouTube. Think viral.

“Footage is potentially going to become public record at some point … allowing the public to see more and more intimate details of people’s lives,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy and civil liberties group. “That’s why it’s important for police departments to consider how to deploy the cameras, who has access to the video and how the department handles public access.”

He added, “We should have those conversations before the cameras are bought.”

Privacy is just one of the many concerns posed by on-officer cameras. Others include long-term storage of the video files, the expense of that storage, when and whether the files will be deleted, the security of the information and more.

To understand the issues, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to more than a dozen local law enforcement agencies as well as state and local lawmakers, civil rights advocates, digital privacy experts and proponents of open government.

Police say the cameras will strengthen investigations and insulate them from frivolous accusations. Prosecutors say they provide point-blank evidence. Civic activists want that objective third eye at the scene. Criminologists say the cameras can bestow a “civilizing effect” upon police interactions, putting both sides on their best behavior.

But how far the should cameras reach into people’s lives, and how widely should the video be disseminated?

Georgia’s first major law on police body cameras, which goes into effect July 1, is already in the cross fire. Senate Bill 94 allows police officers to take their body cameras into private dwellings. Previously, police had to request the permission of the people inside to use the cameras, said the lawmaker behind the measure, Republican Sen. Jesse Stone of Waynesboro.

The law also contains several checks on how far the body camera video can travel outside that home. Stone said the law is intended to protect people’s privacy, largely preventing police video taken in a private residence from becoming public.

“We’re worried about the nosy neighbors and inquiring minds,” Stone said. “There’s an effort to expand the use of body cameras, but not trample the rights of individuals.”

But open government advocates say the law hardly goes that far and that, in particular, video of incidents that generate an investigation or charges should become public, and quickly. That includes, they say, incidents inside people’s homes.

All parties agree these public access issues could land in the courts.

“The irony is that at a time when a large majority of the public is demanding more transparency, this bill limits it,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “The public should be thoroughly disgusted.”

The rush to record

More than any single measure, the use of body cameras has been touted as an answer to the recent string of controversial police-related deaths across the country, many involving black men. Many people say the disputes surrounding incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore could have been resolved had the officers been wearing cameras.

Locally, months-old investigations, such as the probe into the shooting by DeKalb police of an unarmed veteran — nude at the time — would likely be resolved had body cams been in place.

“It’s a major step forward. There’s a lot of second-guessing of law enforcement and public accusations of excessive force and improprieties,” said Frank V. Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “This will help put back the public confidence.”

Here in metro Atlanta, hardly a week goes by without more police agencies announcing plans to use them.

In recent weeks, Smyrna announced it’s spending nearly $70,000 to start equipping cops within a month. Duluth amended its budget to speed the arrival of 59 cameras by the end of June. Marietta’s department anticipates spending about a quarter of a million dollars for body cameras for 115 uniform officers. Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, and Clayton have also committed to them.

Within about a week, Atlanta is expected to select a vendor to buy about 1,500 body cameras at a cost of about $2 million. Mayor Kasim Reed said the city will phase in the cameras.

“We want to get it right,” Reed said. “Our focus is making sure that folks are treated fairly and our officers’ interests are protected and the public’s interests are protected.”

$300,000 a year, just for storage

The rapid deployment is raising a lot of issues in a hurry, from the challenges of crafting laws and policies to often unforeseen expenses of storing years worth of video files. For example, storage costs could reach $300,000 in Gwinnett, which has not yet begun using the cameras.

Many departments don’t have policies in place and don’t understand the full costs of retaining these records for the required periods, which might be years, Rotondo said.

Atlanta Police Department’s three-page “special order” for its camera pilot program says the cameras should be turned on for vehicle and pedestrian stops and pursuits, traffic accidents, and during interviews of suspects, victims or witnesses. The department is crafting a final policy.

At the Valdosta Police Department, which began outfitting officers with body cameras six years ago, the policy makes plain that “officers shall not tamper with, alter, erase, delete, attempt to override the (body camera) in any manner, or attempt to make repairs.”

Fulton police chiefs gather this week

Seeing the coming wave, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves has convened a meeting Wednesday of more than a dozen police chiefs from Atlanta and various other Fulton departments and agencies. Eaves aims to create uniform policies across the county and apply for federal grants to help pay for the cameras.

“I think it’s just part of the future,” Eaves said.

While restrictions exist on the release of certain police video, concerns continue that video of generally law-abiding people will find its way onto social media or television for entertainment purposes. Worse, video could appear on those websites that currently gather people’s mug shots, some of which charge people to remove their image.

But over time, states and police may adopt more restrictions on public access to the police video, making the recordings tougher to obtain, said Dean Dabney, an associate professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.

Even now, he said, someone has to be pretty motivated to obtain police video. A person would have to know the video exists, they would have to submit an open records request to police, and then they would have to make the video public.

“I’m not alarmed that this is going to produce some free-for-all in which people find themselves and every aspect of their lives (exposed),” he said.

A plus for policing, community relations

Some police departments began researching police body cameras before the death last year of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Michael Langford, a longtime activist in Atlanta’s black community, has been among those clamoring for police to wear body cameras.

“It levels the playing field as to who you can believe,” said Langford. “If they are serious about restoring public confidence in the police, they need to do this.”

Some metro police agencies that already use the cameras may provide a glimpse of the future.

Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress started outfitting his officers with body cams in 2009. Last year, the money was secured for “total deployment” — $760 per camera for 149 officers.

“Complaints (against police) are down more than 50 percent,” Childress said. “And the use of force is also down dramatically. I swear by them.”

Some open government advocates worry that police will withhold the footage in criminal cases, saying it is protected as part of the investigation. That is currently a widespread practice with many police reports. Consequently, advocates say, there will be no transparency when the public needs it most, when news of an incident is breaking.

They point to police recordings involving a young woman who was arrested and placed in an Atlanta patrol car last month. She somehow freed herself from handcuffs and shot at two officers, who then returned fire and killed her.

The incident was captured on the police car’s dash camera. Social justice activists, testing Atlanta police’s vow to be more transparent, demanded that the tape be released. APD has refused for weeks, citing an “ongoing investigation.”

Some believe body camera footage will likewise be shielded.

“If they have nothing to hide why not release it?” said Jim Chambers with Rise Up Georgia.

Childress, the Valdosta police chief, said that in general police agencies need to be more forthcoming with the community.

“If it’s controversial, I’m going to release (the footage),” he said. “Are you going to show it, or are you going to let your town burn down?”

Prosecutors cite another plus: video can cut down on the time needed for investigations and prosecutions, said Jason Saliba of the Cobb district attorney’s office.

“When people see themselves (committing a crime) on video, it encourages them to resolve the case,” he said.

One cop’s experience

Parked off of Marietta Street in Powder Springs, Police Officer Josh Chastain quickly pulled his cruiser into traffic and behind the silver Kia, which he’d just clocked going 36 in a 25 mph zone. The two cars pulled over and as the officer exited his car, he pushed a button on the body camera clipped to his shirt, and a little red light went on.

Driver Airasena Boyd told Chastain she was surprised to hear she was going that fast. The camera captured her face and what she said. But her infant son in the back seat was generally outside its field of view.

Powder Springs allowed an AJC reporter to ride along with the officer, and Boyd gave the AJC permission to identify her.

Chastain, 28, grew up not far from Powder Springs in unincorporated Cobb County. He wrestled at nearby McEachern High School.

He said he likes having the camera “in every situation. It just documents what I’m doing.” He regularly reviews his videos, making sure, for instance, that he’s acting safely on traffic stops. Powder Springs has 20 cameras, each costing about $800, for each patrol officer. About twice a week, officers plug the hard drive into a computer, which automatically downloads the video.

Chastain gave Boyd a warning. For her part, she said she believes the cameras are good for police and people.

“I think they’re a great idea,” she said. “That way, nobody is worried about anybody.”

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Staff writers David Wickert and Katie Leslie contributed to this report.