City considers police body cameras

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City considers police body cameras
(Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

Police body cameras have long been a wish list item for Alexandrians, and a proposal from City Manager Jim Parajon in this year’s budget could finally make that wish come true.

Introduced as part of the fiscal year 2023 operating budget, the $2.2 million pilot program, introduced by Parajon at City Council’s request, would put body cameras on the Alexandria Police Department’s 311 officers. If approved by council as part of the budget on May 4, planning for the program would take place throughout the remainder of 2022 with the actual rollout of cameras starting in spring 2023, Parajon said.

“I could see us deploying the cameras initially with a smaller group and testing it and making sure that it functions well and we’re able to redact the information we need to, we’re able to work out the processes in a defined way. And then we’ll continue to add cameras to that program to get up to the 311 for the police department,” Parajon said. “… Everyone wants to do this quickly, but we’ll do it deliberately and make sure that it’s done at the highest quality level.”

The funding proposal involves using $600,000 in federally earmarked dollars, with the remaining $1.6 million paid for using a mix of general fund revenues and American Rescue Plan Act funds. Parajon said the largest initial cost will be the additional staffing required in the police department, as well as the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, city attorney’s office and in information technology.

Photo/Jason North

Parajon emphasized that staffing and creating cross-departmental infrastructure to meet the demands of the program are far bigger investments than the cameras themselves. The footage captured by police officers will be used by prosecutors in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and by City Attorney Joanna Anderson and her staff, along with APD.

“It’s not just a police department program – it is a citywide program,” Parajon said. “The body-worn cameras, in terms of staffing, really do require a review of evidence, a review of public information. That’s where the commonwealth’s attorney and our city attorney’s office come into play. They need the capacity to be able to do those responsibilities well. They also need the technology to be able to review that kind of information.”

The current proposal calls for nine new positions: two additional sergeants in APD, five new staff members for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, one new city attorney and one network engineer.

There will also be annual recurring charges for the program, Parajon said.

“That will be clearly over $1.5 million per year. It could be substantially higher than that, but it’s something we’ve planned for,” Parajon said. “… It’s really going to take sustained funding in the future to make sure it’s properly maintained, properly utilized, properly trained.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said it is past time for Alexandria to implement body cameras, a technology that officers in Washington, D.C., Arlington and Fairfax County have been wearing for years.

“This has rapidly become an essential piece of equipment and we’re the only one left who doesn’t have it, so it’s time to get on board,” Wilson said.

Police officers in D.C. started wearing body cameras in 2015, while neighboring Arlington implemented its body camera program in 2016, followed by Fairfax County in 2020.

Meanwhile, Alexandria has lagged behind its regional counterparts. Plans to fund a pilot program in Alexandria have been repeatedly delayed over the past seven years. Most recently, there was money in the FY2021 budget to fund the program, but it was eventually removed as the city reevaluated its financial priorities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact.

Now, the city is once again considering a body camera pilot program, although it has been rolled back in scope and cost from previous plans. Former City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposal during the FY2021 budget cycle involved a $13 million program that would have included outfitting every police officer, fire marshal and sheriff’s deputy with a camera.

By focusing on the police department deployment, Parajon said he believes the current proposal is the best way to meet council’s stated goal of initiating a program in FY2023 while doing so in a deliberate way.

While his proposal aims to prioritize police officers “given their responsibility out in the field,” Parajon said there will be opportunities in the future for further deployment of body cameras in other departments.

Delayed advantages

Although Alexandria would be late to the party, those involved with the current proposal acknowledged there have been advantages to being one of the last jurisdictions in the region to deploy body cameras.

Lieutenant Jason North, who is spearheading the program for APD, said that getting near unanimous buy-in from the city’s police force would not have been possible five to 10 years ago. In 2022, the perception of body cameras among law enforcement is dramatically different.

“I’ve surveyed the majority of the sworn force at this point, and it’s close to 100% of sworn officers that are in favor of a body-worn camera program. That’s really refreshing,” North said.

Michael Vaccaro, a board member for local police union IUPA Local 5, said most members of APD are “cautiously optimistic” about the program.

“It’s something that the wide majority of officers are supportive of … because they understand how much it can help an officer, how much it will protect a good officer more so than anything else,” Vaccaro said. “Realistically, the only officers that are not going to want to have body cameras are officers who are not doing the right thing either way.”

With police departments across the country implementing similar programs, Alexandria has had the opportunity to learn how body cameras should be implemented and used effectively from those that have already done so. Parajon said police departments nationwide have learned to use footage of specific incidents as educational material for recruits or as debrief material for officers.

“Being able to look at footage from [an incident], I think that could only be a benefit. I think that’s a great option, especially for new officers,” Vaccaro said.

Alexandria has also skipped some of the growing pains associated with the technology. The cameras still require officers to double click a button to start recording, but the software and back-end processes, such as redaction and storage, have improved considerably, according to Parajon, who previously worked in Arlington, Texas as it was implementing a program in 2017.

Storage of video files is now largely done using cloud-based technology, as opposed to physical servers. Redaction, which involves the use of editing software to blur faces and personal information in the videos, has also become easier – a welcome change for police and prosecutors.

“You have to tell [the software] what to do, but it used to be that if there was somebody’s face that needed to be blurred out, you had to go through every frame and frame by frame blur out the face,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said. “Now, you can draw a box around the face and it will just blur out the face for the remainder of the video, which is great.”

Cautious optimism

Many of those interviewed for this story, including North, said the body camera program is a rare win-win that has found uncommon consensus among police, the community and politicians. However, there are still lingering concerns that need ironing out in the policy-writing phase.

The cameras allow supervisors to remotely access camera feeds from their office, which Vaccaro said has created some concern among APD’s rank and file.

“In a shooting or in a use-of-force case, they’ll be able to show exactly what an officer was able to see and what happened,” Vaccaro said. “The other side of it is, I don’t want my supervisor looking over my shoulder while I’m talking to my wife in between calls or while I’m going to the bathroom.”

“I have no expectation that this police department will use these cameras for anything but a law enforcement purpose,” North said. “Those are reasonable questions. They want to make sure that we’re thinking about that, and we will when we develop our policy.”

Parajon and North both said conversations about whether the cameras would be used by officers entering Alexandria’s schools are still ongoing. According to North, if the proposal moves forward, APD plans to be active in policy conversations and already has plans to create up to five steering committees to receive input on various aspects of the program. One would be the special use and function committee, which would involve the schools.

Porter said he believes the body camera footage “is going to make our cases stronger and make our ability to prosecute cases better,” but that the additional work required of his office by the program has put him “a little on edge.” Body camera footage provides new evidence that can be used in criminal and misdemeanor cases, evidence that Porter’s team has to review frame by frame.

Porter cited a case involving someone charged with driving under the influence as an example.

“There can very easily be four or five different officers involved in a DWI arrest. … That would be four different videos of one arrest that we would have a duty to be alert about what’s on the video,” Porter said. “That’s a lot of time, and I’ve obviously been talking to my colleagues and they’ve basically said, ‘However bad you think it’s going to be from a time management viewpoint, it’s going to be worse than you expect.’”

Councilors emphasized that adequate training for officers is key to the program’s success.

“I just wanted to make sure that we have a robust training program for the officers – how to turn them on, how to turn them off, how to understand – and that it is an ongoing investment, that officers have an opportunity at the beginning, and then repeatedly as necessary, to get refreshers so that that training budget is built in as well,” Councilor Sarah Bagley said at the March 31 council budget work session.

End goal

Accountability is the core reason for body cameras. If police officers follow procedures, the cameras should validate their actions. If they don’t, the cameras present a chance to hold police accountable for those erroneous actions.

In some cases, the technology has delivered what many hoped it would. In 2020, Tyler Timberlake, a white Fairfax County police officer, was charged with assault after body camera footage showed him using a stun gun on a Black man who was calling for oxygen and being escorted to an ambulance.

However, others have criticized body cameras, pointing to the limitations of video footage and its failure to lead to convictions. Cases like the killing of Samuel DuBose by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing and the North Charleston, South Carolina police shooting of Walter Scott resulted in mistrials and hung juries despite video footage of the incidents.

Former Councilor Mo Seifeldein, an attorney who was an ardent supporter of the city’s community police review board and police reform while on the dais, said body cameras serve a valuable purpose, but expectations must be tempered.

“I think it allows room for justice to be served when there is a ‘he said, she said’ situation, to protect everyone in that sense,” Seifeldein said. “It will also make it easier for prosecutors to prosecute claims, and it actually may make it easier for the defense bar to defend claims or actions. I think council needs to be very clear about what the intent of this program is, and the public should be informed that this is not [going] to change behavior drastically.”

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