Williamsburg area law enforcement weigh in on body cameras

City police officers will likely be equipped with body cameras in 2017, joining a growing list of law enforcement personnel outfitted with the equipment.

Williamsburg City Council gave the green light to a $221,567 proposal to outfit officers with body cameras Thursday.

“It’s an invaluable tool to be used in criminal prosecution,” said Williamsburg Police Chief Dave Sloggie, who noted that the cameras cannot be turned off if police lights or a taser are on.

The use of body cameras has grown in recent years as police, prosecutors and citizens seek new ways to record interactions between officers and the public. While advocates see the technology as a useful way to record officers’ actions, critics believe the technology is intrusive and can provide an incomplete picture.

Prosecutors in localities where cameras are used have also said reviewing the footage can increase the hours they spend on each case.

Body-worn cameras began appearing in the Historic Triangle about two years ago. James City County Police and the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office both use the equipment.

Deploying new technology

The money approved by the Williamsburg City Council will also cover storage and other equipment related to body camera usage. Sloggie said that any video editing will be marked under the new system the department is using. The software keeps a record of who is doing what to police footage.

“No one can do anything to these videos without it being tagged,” he said.

Sloggie told City Council that 35 cameras should arrive in Williamsburg in a couple months, and they’ll cover the bulk of the police force.

“It’s everybody on the street, except for two investigators,” Sloggie said.

Officers’ willingness to wear body cameras left Sloggie somewhat taken aback.

“There was lots of support,” he said. “That kind of surprised me, to be honest. Would you want someone following you around with a camera all day? The officers supported it and the citizens supported it.”

City attorney Christina Shelton said releasing the video to the public will be up to the discretion of the police chief, especially if the footage contains a possible criminal act.

Film that contains no criminal acts could be easier to get under the Freedom of Information Act, she said.

“A lot of that really depends on what the video is of,” she said. “We’ll deal with that on a case-by-case basis.”

Mayor Paul Freiling spoke in support of the purchase, which he said could help with accountability from both the police and the citizens.

“Sometimes people behave differently when there’s a camera,” he said, noting he is unsure if the cameras will help to de-escalate tense interactions.

Councilman Benny Zhang said a body camera could provide the most objective account of a police encounter.

“From a student perspective, in the past, the relationship was a little strained,” said Zhang, a College of William and Mary alumnus. “You’re going to know what a police officer said to a student, but also vice versa.”

Taser International is the vendor for Williamsburg’s program. Taser International provides point-of-view recording, public discourse tools and unlimited storage, along with other features, as part of its contract.

The program will be funded for five years, with the initial $60,000 included in the city fiscal year 2017 capital budget and the remainder spread across the next four years as part of the police department operating budget, according to city documents.

Local body camera usage

Other departments in the Historic Triangle have utilized body cameras for about a year or more.

Police officials who have used the technology report the devices are valuable tools, but that usage brings challenges as well.

The James City County Police Department began rolling out body cameras in July 2015, and 54 cameras are used by the department, said Stephanie Williams, James City County Police spokeswoman.

The body cameras provide evidence in court and increase accountability and transparency, Williams said. However, the they pose a challenge because of, what Williams called, a misconception that the devices capture an entire incident or that the footage is the only evidence considered in an investigation.

The department issued all patrol officers, school resource officers and the traffic enforcement unit with the devices, Williams said.

York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office started issuing body cameras in November 2014 and has found the devices useful in investigating citizen complaints and criminal proceedings, said Dennis Ivey, York-Poquson Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

The force initially had 28 body cameras. Now, 65 devices are used, equipping all patrol deputies, school resource officers and the traffic enforcement unit, Ivey said.

One of the first major incidents on the Peninsula where a body camera was used to capture footage took place in June 2015, when video showed Damien Harrell drawing a weapon before being shot by police. Harrell had crashed a vehicle at the York County section of Fort Eustis Boulevard near Richneck Road when police stopped to ask why he was walking along the roadway.

Body cameras are also valuable for training purposes, Ivey said.

While largely beneficial, the sheriff’s office finds its body camera program presents a logistical challenge because of the manpower-intensive process of data storage and data retrieval, Ivey said.

On the campus of William and Mary, police officers aren’t outfitted with body cameras, nor are there plans to acquire the devices at this time, said Suzanne Seurattan, a William and Mary spokeswoman. She added that the college continually monitors and reviews best practices for the police.

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343. Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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