Statewide body camera policy would focus on 'use of force' situations
In the coming months, Delaware aims to finalize a statewide policy for the use of police body cameras across all levels of law enforcement. It's part of an effort to protect officers and citizens and to respond to a growing call for police transparency nationwide.
Officials say Delaware's small size will help it do that consistently. But as Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik reports, questions remain about exactly how the cameras should be used -- and how to pay for them.
In a conference room at the New Castle County Public Safety Complex, Officer Tom Jackson is donning a small black box, a little thicker than a pack of cigarettes. It's got a lens in the center, a red record button, and an LED flashlight.
Jackson: So you can clip it inside here, so it's mainly attached to the front of the uniform shirt, mainly center chest. Some of them hook on the pocket... [clacking]
This is just one type of body-worn camera the county has tested this year. They were a relatively early adopter of the technology in the First State -- by next week, Jackson says they'll have more than 30 cameras in the field. But they're still working out a lot of specifics, not least of all, how and when they'll use the cameras they end up picking.
The same goes for the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, the Attorney General and others, who are developing a single policy to make body cameras the norm in all 42 of the state's law enforcement agencies -- from local, Capital and county police to state troopers.
State Safety and Homeland Security secretary Lew Schiliro told Delaware Public Media last week it'll mean all officers are doing the same thing -- which should prevent legal issues:
"I mean, think about somebody on the witness stand -- the defense attorney's asking, 'How come you didn't record it? You know, Officer Jones did,'" Schiliro said.
He listed three goals for the cameras, which the state is piloting on troopers and Georgetown police. He wants the technology to protect the public from abuses of power, shield officers from unfounded accusations, and change behavior by reminding cops and citizens they might be on camera while they interact.
That's not all that new -- dash cameras have been the norm in Delaware for years. But John Horsman of the Capitol Police and police chiefs council says body cameras give the cop's point of view.
He couldn't release a draft of the statewide policy yet, but he did offer some likely specifics. Chiefly, he says, they're aiming to have cameras turned on only in use of force situations:
"If we lose that public trust, and everything has to be digital, we really are going backwards."
"And that can be anything from the anticipation of laying your hands on someone to make a physical arrest, all the way up to deadly force or anything in between," Horsman says.
But he says it's too much to have cameras on all day, or used in evidence gathering or routine traffic stops. That'd be a lot of video to store -- and he says it could infringe on officers' privacy, and skew the public trust.
"Because if we lose that public trust, and everything has to be digital, we really are going backwards," Horsman says, echoing Secretary Schiliro's view. "We don't want to be in a situation where an officer's testimony on the stand -- it can only be believed if he has digital evidence. That's horrible."
But it's a different story in New Castle County, which is writing its own policy to use with test cameras until the final statewide law comes through. Officer Jackson says they're asking cops to use cameras a lot more of the time -- for interviews, evidence gathering and in any interactions with citizens.
"What's gonna be too much video, we don't know, and that's a thing we're going to learn through this -- how much we're getting. And if we can manage it, so be it," Jackson says. "But the more the merrier, as far as I'm concerned."
County police chief Elmer Setting goes a step further:
"I no longer have to stand here and say, 'I swear upon my badge.' Nope -- I'm just gonna push play, and we're gonna resolve this."
"I think it's an inevitable situation where there will be a time in the future where people will demand video," he says.
He welcomes that change, and thinks other cops will too. He remembers when they weren't sure if laptops in squad cars would be a good thing. Now, they can't live without them -- and he looks at body cameras the same way:
"Once we put our toe in that water and get going, everyone's gonna say, 'God, I would never want to be without this camera again,'" Setting says. "Because here's what happened and here's my proof. I no longer have to stand here and say, 'I swear upon my badge.' Nope -- I'm just gonna push play, and we're gonna resolve this.'"
Attorney General Matt Denn doesn't want to speculate whether this shift will be permanent, but:
"My general instinct is that the more that we can know and the more that we can present to juries in a fashion like video that is objective is good," he says. "But there is a point that if juries come to expect video in every case, that can impact cases where there isn't video."
Denn says they'll have to give officers some discretion to turn cameras off for witness or victim privacy. But there's also the issue of how much video the state can store -- and process. Anything used in court has to be reviewed by attorneys, he says, and they have to be hired and paid.
"So there's a real fiscal impact for our office," Denn says. "In addition to working out the procedures, part of what we're trying to do at the outset is make sure everyone understands that and is prepared to bear that cost."
He says the cameras themselves are probably the cheapest part of the whole thing.
But State Rep. Larry Mitchell, an Elsmere Democrat who sponsored this year's resolution mandating the body camera policy, says he's prepared to make sure the technology gets funded next session.
That's good news for people like Delaware ACLU executive director Kathleen McRae.
"Body cameras are a very important part of the equation," she says. "They create a visual record of what has occurred."
"The camera would have told a different story if it was on the police's chest."
She names two recent incidents where she feels that would have helped. In one, a disabled black couple says they were the target of excessive force by a SWAT-style team of Wilmington police. The other is Wilmington Police's fatal shooting of 28-year-old Jeremy McDole, a wheelchair-bound black man they say was drawing a gun.
That shooting was captured on a cell phone -- but the Delaware NAACP's Richard Smith, who's called for an outside investigation into the case, says:
"The camera would have told a different story if it was on the police's chest and stuff, and may have told the truth better than with people guessing and stuff right now," he says. "Even with the police, having cameras on, they would have dealt with that different."
He notes that body cameras aren't a magic bullet -- but says they are a step in the right direction. Attorney General Denn agrees, and says ideally, every officer would wear one. And in New Castle County, Chief Setting hopes to make that a reality as soon as he can.
Like so many things, it all comes down to funding -- securing grants, or else looking to the legislature to find money in an already tight state budget to pay the bill.