The state of police body cameras in Delaware
State lawmakers and the state Attorney General are calling for police throughout the state to use body cameras. Some of the state’s largest police forces still do not have them.
As of April, around twenty law enforcement agencies in Delaware used body-worn cameras, according to the state Department of Justice. Delaware State Police and the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) are not among them.
Citizens and some elected officials in Wilmington have expressed frustration with delays in rolling out body cameras since police piloted them there in 2016. Officials have pointed to funding as the impediment, but Mayor Mike Purzycki committed to finding the money to roll them out “without delay” among protests earlier this month.
In a statement released to the media just before the protest was scheduled to start in Wilmington June 5, Purzycki committed to “immediately” making available $800,000 in City funds that would be required to match a federal grant WPD has applied for. He and City Council President Hanifa Shabazz committed to identifying additional funding if the grant is denied.
Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy has expressed support for body cameras, and presented a body camera program to City Council last year that would cost more than $1.1 million the first year, and nearly $900,000 each year after that. That includes roughly $500,000 each year to fund new positions for one sergeant and three police officers who would supervise and administer the program. It would outfit every officer, including those assigned to desk jobs, with their own camera.
The federal grant WPD has applied for would fund part of the non-personnel costs of the program over the course of three years. The department failed to receive the grant last year, and expects to hear the verdict on this year’s application at the end of the summer.
Delaware State Police spokeswoman Heather Pepper declined to explain why the force doesn’t have them, but noted they have a “very extensive” in-car camera program that captures video and audio of incidents outside of vehicles.
The Newark Police Department in the process of rolling out body cameras. Most of the department began using them early this year, after receiving City and federal funding for the program in late 2019. Spokesperson Lt. Andrew Rubin said in a statement last week that the coronavirus slowed down implementation and training — but Newark’s body camera program should be fully rolled out by July.
State Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) president Fred Calhoun calls equipping all agencies in Delaware with body cameras a “no brainer.” He sees them as exculpatory for officers.
“Body cameras have shown that more officers have been cleared than not when it comes to use of force and citizen complaints,” he said.
“A lot of times you have moments where you come into contact with members of the community, and they’re not in the best form,” said New Castle County Police Department spokesperson Michael Eckerd. “A lot of times the accusations come up, and the officer would get accused of something, and body camera footage which has been on, clearly states otherwise.”
The New Castle County Police Department (NCCPD) has had body cameras since 2016, with only non-administrative NCCPD officers equipped.
Eckerd says most officers are in favor of the cameras. He admits when he first got one, he was apprehensive. But he ended up seeing it as essential.
“For the period that I did have a body camera, it has helped me many times,” he said. “For my report writing, all the way up to internal investigations and criminal investigations.”
Eckerd says body camera footage is used in all internal investigations into possible police misconduct at NCCPD, but declined to say how many times footage has proved that an officer violated internal policy or has been used against an officer in court.
University of Delaware sociology and criminal justice professor Ivan Sun says studies have shown body cameras reduce the rate of use of force complaints. But he says convictions of officers accused of using inappropriate force remain rare.
“In most cases today, it’s used more effectively against the suspects— citizens who are accused,” said Sun. "In Delaware, I haven’t heard any— I may be wrong— I haven’t heard any cases, complaints or criminal lawsuits against police officers, that body camera [footage] has been introduced.”
Sun says there is also evidence that body cameras increase the number of arrests that officers make.
“The use of body-worn cameras really reduced their options,” he said. “It kind of curbs their discretionary decision making by, for instance, giving a citizen a break.”
Sun says the effectiveness of body cameras depends on department policy that dictates when they’re turned on and how footage is stored and reviewed.
“The body cameras tell the truth on both sides, if they’re regulated right,” said Delaware NAACP State Conference of Branches President Richard “Mouse” Smith. “If it doesn’t cut off just before they do the beating and the shooting.”
In light of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd this spring, the state NAACP called on Gov. John Carney, Attorney General Kathy Jennings and members of the General Assembly late last month to mandate the daily use of body cameras by every police officer in Delaware.
Calhoun of the state FOP argues policies around body camera use should be nuanced, to protect victim privacy.
“When you go into the house of a rape victim, do you want them to be on the camera?” he asked. “Or an assault victim that’s badly beaten, do you want that to be on there?”
Departments like Newark’s require officers to record situations where arrest, detention or use of force is likely.
The agenda unveiled by the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus last week would mandate cameras be activated throughout all interactions with suspects or witnesses.
Yasser Payne, a University of Delaware sociology and criminal justice professor who works with Wilmington residents to study gun violence, was part of a recent meeting between community activists and elected officials. He characterizes Puryzicki’s commitment to bringing body cameras to Wilmington as an “aspiration” and an “uphill battle.”
Payne argues the state is more conservative than it might appear — and that a predominantly white “ruling elite” has upheld the status quo in policing here.
“While they may be open to some reform, these folk are not big— at least fundamentally— on things like body cams or civilian review boards,” he said. “They have pushed back against this hard.”
Payne says implementing body cameras should be “easy.” But he recognizes their limitations.
“[Body cameras are] not going to stop anything neither,” he said. “Even if we have the footage, oftentimes it’s not enough to convict an officer, or even indict him.”
Payne says the goal of police accountability reforms like body cameras is to “send really bad cops to jail.”
“The thing that reduces police brutality the most, police misconduct the most, that we know of—empirically, scientifically—is economic stability.”
Mahkeib Booker, leader of Black Lives Matter Wilmington and organizer of some of the recent Wilmington protests, is adamant that Wilmington police should wear body cameras.
“I only can say this,” he said in a written statement Monday. “We need them in Wilmington, Delaware.”
This story has been updated to include Ivan Sun's area of specialization.