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Delaware's police body cams policy set for release Jan. 4

Annie Ropeik/Delaware Public Media

Law enforcement officials are preparing to release a proposal to limit the use of police body cameras to arrest and use of force situations.

The new statewide body cameras policy is set to be finalized at a meeting with the Attorney General's office on Jan. 4.

Police chiefs council vice president John Horsman, of the Capitol Police, says the biggest debate has been over when officers should turn cameras on. He says they've settled on a limited scope -- for now.

"If you feel that you're going to be making an arrest, or you feel that you're going to be making a use of force issue, turn your camera on," Horsman says. "Narrowly focusing it and rolling out a policy that everyone can live with allows us to expand it as the need expands, and that's kind of what we're looking at."

Some suggested broader uses of the cameras could extend to all citizen interactions or an officer's whole shift, Horsman says. For right now, things like traffic stops and crime scenes are already recorded in other ways.

Still, that's not enough for Delaware ACLU executive director Kathleen MacRae. She acknowledges the privacy concerns prompted by body cameras, but says the proposed policy gives officers too much discretion on when to record.

On the other hand, "if the officer is recording themselves and the people on the street on a daily basis, it is good for both the officer and the community," MacRae says, "because both are held accountable for their behavior, and it gives definitive evidence as to what went down."

She adds complaints about officers' actions don't always stop at arrests and use of force.

But John Horsman says their research shows body camera programs failed in states that took too broad an approach, too fast. Plus, he says it's just too expensive to store and manage that much footage -- in the millions of dollars, even with a narrow scope.

And many departments are already short-staffed. AG Matt Denn says funding for more manpower is his biggest budget priority next legislative session. That's before body cameras have even entered the picture.

"We have not had many cases so far where the footage has had to be used," Denn says, "mainly because even with the departments that are using them, it's generally a relatively small percentage of the officers that are wearing them."

Several departments have run their own pilot programs to test cameras and approaches to them this year. And John Horsman says that probably won't change in 2016. Even if lawmakers approve the new policy -- which they could do next session -- he doesn't expect they'll offer money to start using it more broadly.

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