Police body cameras; more questions than answers

Experts stress patience with body cameras on Roanoke police (Image 1)
Experts stress patience with body cameras on Roanoke police (Image 1) (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

ROANOKE COUNTY (WSLS 10) -After a national conversation and in an effort to be more transparent,  police departments across our area are having their officers wear body cameras.

In the past two years, Buena Vista, Bedford County, Galax and Roanoke City have implemented the use of body cameras in their police force. But like Roanoke County police, not everyone is on board yet.

President Obama has asked congress for more than 260-million dollars to buy 50-thousand body cameras for officers over a three year program, but without a national policy in place on how to use them, some law enforcement officials remain skeptical.

"I think this is an evolving issue and there is still much to be learned," said Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall.

An investigative device that was developed to provide more answers, still has a lot of questions. One of which for Hall is how to pay for it.

"At this point I would not be comfortable asking for the funding for that," Hall said.

He says a conservative estimate for Roanoke County is a quarter of a million dollars. He says while he is open to it in the future, more needs to be learned.

Dr. Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice and associate dean at Radford University adds perspective on the issue.

"When I was a police officer we didn't have body cameras. I'll tell you, if I was one now I would want one," Burke said.

A former police officer in Maryland, he admits it's not yet a perfect system.

"It is not the end all be all," Burke said.

Burke says even if a department can afford it, it doesn't mean it has all of the answers.

"It's not a magic silver bullet," Burke said. "We can relate this to sporting events. How many times have we watched a sporting event and watched the replay over and over again, and we've seen it in slow motion and yet we still can't make the call."

He says although early studies show a positive impact on the behavior of officers and the public, there is still concern on how the video captured will be used and who will be allowed to see it.

"We shouldn't do an knee-jerk reaction to just get body cameras, but again, body cameras are not the silver bullet. It's just an investigative aid. But once you have serious questions answered, then it's worth looking into," Burke said.

One of those major questions is policy on how it is used, who can use it, and who can see it.

Burke points out that in certain scenarios, undercover police officers can be at risk for being exposed and even in danger if certain video falls into the wrong hands.

"You don't want to fall into a trap in which we are just purchasing these and we are throwing them on to the officers and there is a lack of training on how the officers are using them, Who is going to have access to them? Is this going to be used in a punitive way against a police officers? Will this be used in an internal investigation against the officers? There are so many questions," Burke said.

Dr. Burke says he is in favor of body cameras but in order for them to be effective, there has to be a uniform policy that both the department and the community can agree upon on how to use them.

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