Chatham County

Are body cameras the answer for Chatham County crime? Now is the time, sheriff says.

The Chatham County Sheriff's Office soon will be outfitting its deputies with body cameras made by WatchGuard.
The Chatham County Sheriff's Office soon will be outfitting its deputies with body cameras made by WatchGuard.

Standard equipment for Chatham County deputies soon will include some new technology: body cameras.

"We are moving in the direction of what the public expects," said Capt. Chris Cooper, who did much of the research for the sheriff's office.

"It is the same thing with dash cams; years and years ago when dash cams came in, people wondered about them," he said. "I think body cams are more acceptable because we've already had dash cams and we've already seen what dash cams can do."

Chatham County deputies will be joining the expanding roster of officers across the state who record their interactions with the public. Pittsboro police have had body cameras since 2016, but they are not used by Siler City police.

The Durham Police Department finished outfitting all officers with body cameras last November, while Chapel Hill and Carrboro police have long used the recording devices. The Durham County Sheriff's Office is evaluating various models. In Orange County, Sheriff Charles Blackwood has said he isn't convinced that video from body cameras is always fair or helpful, so his deputies don't have them.

Chatham County went through a test phase before settling on a camera made by WatchGuard. The company also makes the in-car cameras found in their sheriff patrol cars.

Multiple perspectives

“Body cameras are a natural progression from in-car cameras," said Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson. "Both systems will work together to capture evidence from multiple perspectives. No officer or system is perfect, but these cameras are a big step towards increasing transparency, accountability and public trust.”

Ilana Dubester, executive director of The Hispanic Liaison, welcomes the cameras.

"Given what has happened across the country, it's an important step to use body cameras," Dubester said. "Body cameras still show only one point of view, and they don't show the full story. Thankfully we haven't had any shootings here, but we never know when something will happen or will not happen."

Chatham County spent just under $100,000 to purchase the first batch of 66 cameras, which will outfit about half the department.

Half of that money was from the county and the other half came from a state grant, County Manager Renee Paschal said. The county originally was going to implement the program during a three-year phase-in, but the state grant has allowed them to be purchased in two years.

The cameras are manually operated and have to be activated by the user on each call, according to Cooper.

Delivery of the cameras is expected in May, when deputies will begin their training, Cooper said.

“We have drafted new policies in anticipation of this change," Roberson said. “Now we must train deputies on the use of these devices both functionally and ethically. Body cameras are a new endeavor for us, but we will continue to navigate the challenge together as an agency and a community.”

Use of body cameras by law enforcement is regulated under N.C. General Statute 15A-202. Since October 2016, anyone who wants police body camera footage released has had to petition a court. Individuals depicted in the footage — or an individual's personal representative in some circumstances — may be allowed to view the footage if they ask a law enforcement agency, though it's not guaranteed they will be allowed to view it.

Roberson would like to equip all deputies with the cameras, including those who work in the county's jail. The first cameras will go to deputies on patrols.