Local law enforcement talks body cameras in wake of ACLU report

West Point Police Chief Avery Cook (left) and Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott

Body cameras have become an everyday part of the average law enforcement officer’s array of tools, but one organization claims the policies governing these devices in Mississippi fall well short of its recommendations.
The ACLU of Mississippi published a report this month titled “Strike The Right Balance: An Analysis of Body-Worn Camera Policies in Mississippi.”
The report touts the benefits of a statewide policy meant to standardize the use of body-worn cameras (BWCs) and also provides a model policy it hopes will be adopted by state lawmakers in the future to standardize the use of BWCs. 
ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley Collins said when used properly, body-worn video cameras can help deter police misconduct and uses of force, provide evidence to hold officers accountable when misconduct does occur as well as exonerate wrongly accused officers, and help the public understand how police operate. 
“The lack of uniformity across the state makes it clear that the state must establish certain minimum criteria for policies governing the use of BWCs by agencies choosing to deploy them,” Collins said. 
Currently, individual law enforcement agencies in Mississippi are tasked with forming their own policies concerning the burgeoning technology, which typically mirrors that of other agencies with some minor changes in language. 
One of the key talking points from the report says of the 65 Mississippi law enforcement policies reviewed, none require individuals to be notified that they are being recorded; less than 20 percent require officers to deactivate the camera when entering a home where the resident requests the camera to be turned off and no policies provide provisions to protect victims of domestic violence. 
Blake Feldman, the organization’s criminal justice reform advocacy coordinator, was the primary researcher and author of the report.  
Feldman said for body cameras to promote trust between police and the community, police must use them in a way that balances interests in police accountability, government transparency and privacy.
“In the policies we analyzed, we found inconsistent implementation guidance, a lack of privacy safeguards, and bare minimum accountability provisions,” Feldman said. 
Other issues brought up by the report claim of the 65 agencies analyzed, 3 percent of policies prohibit law enforcement from recording apparent victims and 40 percent grant a special right for officers to view footage before completing their report. 
Neither the Clay County Sheriff’s Office or the West Point Police Department have express guidelines in their policies that prohibit officers from recording apparent victims. 
For an example of how policies are implemented at the local level, the policy of the West Point Police Department - formed under then Chief Tim Brinkley - says officers should inform individuals that they are being recorded “whenever possible.”
The policy recommended by the ACLU states the officer “shall notify the subject(s) of the recording that they are being recorded by a body camera as close to the inception of the encounter as is reasonably possible.”
The WPPD policy also says in locations where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy - like a home - the subject may request the camera to be turned off unless the recording is being made in pursuant of an arrest or search of the property. 
Similar language is used for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office policy, saying officers should notify individuals “whenever possible,” but does not require the action under the threat of punitive repercussions.  
While the ACLU model policy addresses asking the occupant of a home where an officer is responding to a call if they would like the recording device cut off, no language is mentioned by the ACLU pertaining to if the recording is pursuant to an arrest or search of the property.
Both local agencies, however, require officers to activate body cameras to record all contacts with citizens in the performance of official duties. The language for both policies is exactly the same, but implementation of the policies differs between the two agencies.
One of the requirements of the model policy presented by the ACLU would require all body camera footage to be retained by the agency for six months from the date it was recorded, after which time it can be deleted. 
Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott told the Daily Times Leader he is in favor of the use of body cameras, but said the biggest burden for his office comes in the form of data storage. 
“The only issue is, just like every other agency, is storing,” Scott said. “The state leaves it to the county to have to fund it.” 
The CCSO worked to steadily equip officers and patrol cars with recording devices and had outfitted the entire force with BWCs by late 2015. 
Lack of storage capacity for footage at the CCSO is also compounded by the need to store dash camera video from patrol vehicles, along with body camera footage. Patrol officers typically work 12-hour shifts, which creates a glut of video footage that is of little use to the department if not used as part of a case. 
Scott said his current policy is to keep everything that is related to a case or if a complaint against an officer is filed. 
Typical footage with the CCSO is currently stored for about 30 to 45 days after being saved to the server and, if nothing comes up concerning a complaint, the footage is usually deleted to save storage space. 
Another storage problem for Scott is a push for extended storage time.
“The problem is they come out and try to mandate a length of time,” Scott said. “How are we supposed to afford to do that? Are we supposed to lay off law enforcement officers? Those are the questions that need to come to the table.” 
In cases involving capital punishment prosecutions, CCSO policy maintains the recordings be kept until the offender is no longer under control of a criminal justice agency. The policy for the WPPD states the exact same requirements. 
Storage is also limited for the WPPD, with a 32-terabyte server used for storing video files. However, the department has its own internal methods of monitoring space to keep the server from being bogged down with data. 
West Point Police Chief Avery Cook, who has been on the job since September, said storage “is not a problem” right now, because the department trusts its officers to turn on BWCs on a case-by-case basis, instead of with every interaction with the public. 
“We only turn it on for major events when they need to save that stuff,” Cook said. “If it’s something we will need, we will download it on a hard drive and use it for court, and automatically after 30 days it rolls off and keeps storage clean.”
Both agencies also require data to be stored in accordance with state records retention laws and no longer than use for purposes of training or for use in an investigation or prosecution. 
Scott and Cook - who was appointed to the position in July - both agreed smaller agencies would have a difficult time incorporating many of the changes being pushed by the ACLU concerning body cameras. 
“I would say each department should make its own way and own policy,” Cook said. 
The Daily Times Leader reported in March that since WPPD began using body cameras in September 2016 under Brinkley, the number of officer complaints has reduced drastically. Prior to implementing the cameras, WPPD received complaints at least once or twice a week.
While in favor of maintaining local autonomy in policy setting, Cook said he wasn’t opposed to the idea of a statewide policy putting every agency “on the same page.” 
“A statewide policy wouldn’t be bad because everyone would be on the same guidelines,” Cook said. “I’m in favor of having our own policies. Most policies mirror others anyways.”