Use of police cameras stalls as cities sort out legal, data issues

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Several Mississippi law-enforcement agencies have been slow to roll out recently purchased body cameras as they work on establishing rules for handling data.

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Clinton police Chief Ford Hayman.

For example, the city of Clinton announced in September that the town would spend $262,000 to buy 40 body cameras for its officers. Chelsea Brannon, the city attorney, said the cameras will not be deployed until the city finalizes its internal policies for storing the data.

Made by Utility Associates Inc., which has officers in Decatur, Ga., and Mississauga, Ontario, Clinton’s cameras resemble a standard smartphone that are worn in a pocket on the front of the uniform shirt. A radio signal activates the camera automatically when the officer opens the squad car door.

Brannon said the city plans to follow the state archives department’s retention schedule for municipalities. Under those guidelines, local governments must keep non-investigative records, including video from body and dashboard cameras for 30 days; investigative records must be retained for one year after the final disposition of a case and completion of a sentence.

Ford Hayman, Clinton’s police chief, said body cameras are a very good tool for transparency.

“In this day and age, if you don’t have footage, you’re immediately believed to be in the wrong if something happens. It’s just another tool in the tool belt so we can go about and do our job and have the data to back us up,” Hayman told Mississippi Today.

But backing up the data itself can be challenging and costly.

TASER International, which makes stun guns and body cameras, created a company called Evidence.com that specializes in data storage, costing $15 to $99 per officer per month, business-news nonprofit Marketplace reported in November 2015. Between the first quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2015, TASER’s storage increased from $6 million to almost $40 million.

The high cost of storing data-heavy video files and maintaining hardware has also sent departments searching for lower cost alternatives. Clinton’s system, for example, uses a cloud-based storage system that uploads when the cameras have a WiFi connection.

As demand for the cameras have increased, so have questions about citizen privacy, adding another potential legal minefield

In particular, whether officers should activate the cameras during domestic-violence calls or situations involving children — some body cam software allows the faces of bystanders to be blurred out — and whether the videos should be open to the public.

These questions were part of the impetus for Hattiesburg to develop an ordinance to govern the use of its body cams. The ACLU of Mississippi helped write the 19-page draft policy, which Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado plans to introduce on Oct. 18.

An example of an in-uniform body camera manufactured by Utility.

BodyWorn by Utility

An example of an in-uniform body camera manufactured by Utility.

“Governments have used surveillance throughout history to suppress free speech, intimidate leaders of political movements, and track individuals and communities. Such technologies are disproportionately used to target communities of color and low income communities,” Delgado said in late September.

Ben Logan, the Tupelo city attorney, said he is close to completing an internal policy that limits officers’ discretion on when to record interactions, addresses privacy concerns, protects footage against tampering and makes the footage to individuals who file complaints.

“As a working document during the rollout of this new technology, the proposed policy well passes muster, but as in all things we do around here, the best remains the standard,” Logan said in an email to Mississippi Today and several city officials.

“A little tweaking will get us there. This is new ground, so bear with the process and let’s allow sound principles as opposed to the news cycle to drive good policy. Many jurisdictions have rolled out this new technology without sound policies, and one without the other can sometimes make matters worse.”

The struggles of Mississippi agencies mirror similar issues around the nation. According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts published Oct. 11, only 21 states have laws regarding public access of body-camera data. Mississippi is not among them, although as of April 2015 the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s public-records retention schedule includes in-car and body worn cameras.

Rep. Deborah Dixon, D-Raymond, has introduced legislation each year since 2012 to require officers to wear body cameras, but the bills have all stalled in committee. In 2009, Dixon’s son, Broderick, was killed by an off-duty policy officer in Alabama.

“We need some justice and to help the citizens of the United States. We need some justice for victims,” Dixon said.

Dixon also believes outside vendors should oversee handling of the footage instead of leaving oversight to individual police agencies. She plans to bring her bill back in the 2017 legislative session.