Durham County

DPD $1.4 million body camera purchase under evaluation

Rachael Riley; rriley@heraldsun.com

For some Durham Council members, spending $1.4 million for police body-worn cameras is determined by transparency.

The council is expected to vote on the matter Nov. 21, but discussed the city’s policy compared to the state’s during a work session Thursday.

Durham Police Department administrators propose purchasing 530 body-worn cameras for officers at a cost for about $1.4 million, or about $281,840 annually, during a the five year contract.

Police administrators, the city attorney and city manager have all worked to draft a general order regarding officer’s use of the cameras.

Since the passing of House Bill 972, Durham’s draft general order for police body cameras was revised to align with the state’s rules.

Durham Police Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis said she could not find prior guidelines relating to release of police video footage and thinks the intent of the state was for legislation consistent for all agencies.

“What it has done is prohibit the release of video recordings by law enforcement agencies to the general public without having a petition from a judge or petitioning the judge to order the release of the video footage,” Davis said.

Councilwoman Jillian Johnson said she realizes updates to Durham’s general order are “mandated” by the state.

“Do you have any thought in how we make this program actually a tool for transparency and accountability in the department, because I feel that the reason that people in Durham have asked us to start using body cameras is for that purpose?” Johnson asked Davis.

She asked Davis if it is worth spending taxpayers’ money for the next five years.

Davis said it is the opinion of other chiefs she’s spoken to that the legislation goes against hopes of being transparent, and that she thinks the conversations will continue.

Still, she said she thinks body cameras are important for officers to know there’s an internal way of examining particular incidents with solid information.

Councilman Charlie Reece, too, said he thinks Durham’s intent for the camera purchase is related to transparency and accountability.

Reece said he finds it hard to support a policy that requires a judge’s order for video captured by police, whose salaries are paid by taxpayers on equipment paid by taxpayers, despite the “well meaning” intentions of the city council and city administrators.

“When I look at the very limited nature of the access that the public will have to this information, it seems clear to me that the money is better spent in other ways,” Reece said.

He commended officials for drafting a policy that is mandated by the state and requested updates to the policy be posted for residents to see.

Councilman Eddie Davis said he understands there are concerns with civil liberties and “the position the general assembly” is putting the city in, but thinks the body cameras are needed.

Mayor Bill Bell said he thinks it’s time for the council to make a decision on the matter -- to consider if the price in the contract is OK and if the city wants to purchase the cameras.

“If you don’t have something to back you up, you’ll wish you had the cameras,” Bell said.

In other unrelated matters Thursday, Davis provided council members with updates on justice diversion programs and the use and processing of citations related to low level marijuana offenses.

The general orders allow officers to identify people who meet criteria of possessing small amounts of marijuana to go through a misdemeanor diversion program or to be issued a citation.

“This is something that we are supporting wholeheartedly to give individuals an opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system, having an opportunity to keep their records clean as opposed to being tarnished with a misdemeanor charge,” Davis said.