The added cost of body cameras

Published 11:15 am Wednesday, April 19, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Cameras have allowed the public to see how an encounter with police actually unfolds.

If the encounter ends in an arrest, both the prosecution and defense can use the video to aid their case in court.

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But all that video, from body cameras and car cameras, must be uploaded, put on CDs and watched by prosecutors. The average length of a DUI video is 45 minutes, and often there is more than one, said Isle of Wight County Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips.

The increased workload has led Phillips to ask for two new positions in her office — another attorney and an administrative assistant.

Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton said he’s seen this request in other localities, a direct result from the increased use of cameras by law enforcement. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Phillips said the three law enforcement agencies in Isle of Wight — the Sheriff’s Office and the Smithfield and Windsor police departments — use body and car cameras. They are most often used in DUI and drug cases, Phillips said. The cameras are also helpful in assault cases and when interviewing witnesses, she added.

Isle of Wight County Sheriff Mark Marshall said at a recent budget work session that he has a sergeant who spends about 20 hours a week looking at videos for possible evidentiary material.

In Smithfield, it can take one to three hours to download a video from a body camera at the end of a shift, depending on the amount of data, said Lt. Matthew Rogers, who is in charge of the cameras for the department. Smithfield currently has 16 body cameras issued to officers.

Rogers also processes requests from the commonwealth’s attorney and defense attorney.

Last week, Rogers produced eight copies of in-car camera footage for the commonwealth’s attorney that took 30 minutes.

Once those videos arrive in Phillips’ office, they are placed in the case file, with some cases having multiple videos on CDs.

If the defense wants copies, then Phillips’ office is required to obtain and disclose those videos.

However, in cases involving confidential informants or sexual assault victims, Phillips does not provide copies, but allows the defense to watch the video at her office.

That is done to protect the informants and victims, because if the defense attorney’s client asks for a copy, they have to give it to them and then that video can end up on social media and create a dangerous situation, Phillips said.

Phillips said the commonwealth’s attorney’s office is funded through the state’s compensation board, and funding is based on the number of felonies and misdemeanors appealed to circuit court. It does not count misdemeanors such as DUIs, where most of the video is used, she said.

For example, in 2016, Isle of Wight had 444 felony case files and 362 misdemeanor case files — meaning that each file can contain one or more actual criminal charges.

Most of the misdemeanor cases are DUIs and drugs, followed closely by domestic assault.

With the DUI and drug cases, “we spend so much time watching videos,” Phillips said, adding it’s enough to fill two full-time positions. 

Based on the state’s formula, the Isle of Wight County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office has been short an attorney for years, Phillips said.

But due to economic conditions — the loss of International Paper, the recession and other economic issues, as well as Isle of Wight having relatively few complex cases, such as a murder — past commonwealth’s attorneys have passed on requesting that additional attorney, Phillips said.

The increased use of cameras, however, has tipped the balance. Phillips initially asked for the additional positions last year, but was unsuccessful. This year, they made it into the proposed budget.

Phillips opened one case file for a DUI that included four CDs of videos. Often, DUI cases involve two officers and that can mean footage from up to two body cameras and two car cameras — up to four hours of video to watch, she said.

“It gets overwhelming,” she said.

Phillips said that video, while useful, does not replace officer testimony and has its limitations — such as not picking up the entire scene.

“It’s just another tool to use,” she said, adding that it does assure the public that police are making an attempt to be transparent.

The new administrative assistant will concentrate on obtaining the videos, making copies and putting them in the proper files. The new attorney would assist with cases involving video, mostly DUI and drug cases, Phillips said.

If approved, Phillips can advertise for the positions in July and hopefully have them filled by the end of the summer.

Meanwhile, Marshall hinted at another challenging aspect of video that’s looming — storage.

“It’s a brave new world out here with video,” he said.  {/mprestriction}