Police finalizing body-worn camera policy

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

The Black Mountain Police Department is finalizing a policy for body-worn cameras that all officers will use in the coming months.

Black Mountain police officer Ian Ammons models the new body cameras officers will wear.

A group of three community representatives, which included a reporter from The Black Mountain News, was selected by the department to review a draft of the policy. A finalized version of the policy is the last step in the grant application process that will fund half of the $22,000 needed to purchase the cameras and related equipment.

Black Mountain was one of 47 “smaller agencies” throughout the country awarded the grant, according to Lt. Rob Austin, who has worked since February 2017 on securing funding to equip the department with body-worn camera technology. The grant is awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded Black Mountain $11,000. To receive the money, the town must match it.

Officers began testing body-worn cameras in 2017 when the department was in the early stages of the grant application process.

“We evaluated five cameras, and we chose this one,” Austin said, displaying a small, lightweight Safariland VieVu LE5 Lite Body-Worn Camera to the review panel Jan. 16.

Austin, making the presentation with Sgt. Chris Staton and police chief Shawn Freeman, revealed  the policy draft to community representatives Carlos Showers, a town alderman; Robyn Josephs, moderator of the Facebook group Black Mountain Exchange; and Black Mountain News reporter Fred McCormick.

“We feel, as a group, that the three of you are a good representation of the community,” Austin said. “This meeting allows us to be open about the process of establishing this policy with the community.”

The Bureau of Justice Assistance requires a departmental policy before releasing the grant money, Austin said. Black Mountain’s policy, which will be finalized in the coming weeks, borrows heavily  upon “the accepted norms and standards” in the state, he  said.

Austin showed the panel a pair of videos captured by Black Mountain officers wearing the Safriland VieVu LE5 Lite Body-Worn Camera. One video was from a routine traffic stop and the other was of officers clearing a dark, unoccupied building. Both videos provided clear video and audio footage of the events.

While the cameras see only what is happening from the vantage point of the officer’s upper torso, where the equipment is worn,  cameras worn by multiple officers at a crime scene will provide various angles, Freeman said.

The cameras can be activated by officers with a swipe of the hand, which opens the cover and initiates the recording.

“It doesn’t just protect officers,” Freeman said. “It protects the public too.”

Austin said the department consulted with nearby agencies that have been using body-worn camera technology before pursuing the grant.

“Body-worn camera technology is the future of law enforcement,” Austin said. “We think it’s time to use that technology here in Black Mountain.”

Each officer will be assigned a camera when his or her shift begins.

“The video and audio stop and start together when the camera is activated and deactivated,” Austin said. “There is a flashing light on the camera that indicates it’s recording.”

Each camera has a five-hour running battery life per charge, Austin said, with an average videos lasting between 5-15 minutes. Every camera can hold up to 32 GBs of data.

Officers will download recorded footage when their shifts end. Only select personnel within the department will have access to the videos once they are downloaded to the server. Officers will have access to view their own footage, Austin said.

When the department’s policy is finalized, it will make the policy available upon request.

Footage collected by the cameras will be accessible to authorized parties, which will be detailed in the policy, through a public records request.

(Editor's note: Reporter Fred McCormick was part of the group selected by the police department to review a draft of its body camera policy.)