Technology should "strengthen accountability and transparency in the department," according to interim chief

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The Black Mountain Police Department is in the early stages of testing body cameras. If it adopts them, it will join a growing number of law enforcement agencies in the country, including the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department and the Asheville and Woodfin police departments, whose officers wear cameras.

Officers in December began testing various models of the cameras. On Feb. 13, the Black Mountain Police Department applied for a grant through the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance that would allow it to purchase equipment and implement a body-worn camera program.

Interim police chief Rob Austin, presenting the department's semi-annual report to Black Mountain aldermen Feb. 13, said the technology would “strengthen accountability and transparency in the department.”

“We are testing two units right now,” Austin told the board. “You may see some officers out with them. Please come by and take a look.”

Austin said a program could be implemented around August if the department is awarded the grant. Town manager Matt Settlemyer asked Austin his opinion on the trend the technology is taking.

“It’s not going to go away,” Austin replied. “It’s kind of like when (law enforcement) first got computers and people thought you didn’t need computers in your car. And 20 years later I’ve now had a computer all 20 years.”

The sheriff’s department began evaluating body cameras nearly two years ago. It bought 70 of them for about $90,000 using money that came from federal asset seizure funds.

The camera the sheriff's department uses are a model that the Black Mountain police is testing, Austin said. The other model is used by Woodfin police.

“We’ve been able to  see how it has worked for some of these other agencies and allow the laws around the technology emerge,” Austin said. “And now with grants available we have an opportunity to seek funding for them and see where it goes.”

The department applied for the grant before the Feb. 16 deadline. Austin does not know when the department will find out if it will be awarded the grant. If it doesn't get the money, it will look for it elsewhere, he said.

Officer Grant Caison is  testing one of the cameras. He's worn one before, at another law enforcement agency.

“They’re very simple to use,” Caison said. “They have to be. If you have one that requires you (to) push a small button, or something like that, then you’ll never find that in a high-stress situation.”

The presence of body-worn cameras in police-public interactions goes a long way toward relieving potential tension, according to Caison.

"It brings me a sense of security," the eight-year law enforcement veteran said. "It brings me just an added layer of protection when I'm doing my job. There is a big difference between this and the in-car camera system, which catches everything out of the front window and sound if you're in range of the car. This records everything that's going on from my perspective."

During the trial period, Black Mountain police officers aren't using the cameras for ongoing investigations, Austin said. The police department will retain the recordings once the borrowed equipment is returned.

Training will include state law  related to body-worn camera footage and will precede the technology's implementation, Austin said.  Use of the cameras is an example of how the department uses technology to better serve the community, he added.

"We have a great community here," he said. "If you're going to be a police officer in any community, then this is the one you want to be in."

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