Police consider body cameras

Published 8:26 pm Saturday, September 27, 2014

With tensions flaring again in Ferguson, Mo., as protests continue following the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, law enforcement across the country are taking note.

Suffolk’s police chief, Thomas Bennett, is no exception.

“Every conference I go to, every meeting I go to,” Michael Brown’s death and the ensuing protests have been a main topic of conversation, Bennett told City Council members during their retreat on Thursday.

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Bennett broached the topic during his presentation on public safety, which is common at the annual retreat. But this year included discussion on a piece of equipment that could help prevent what happened in Ferguson from happening here in Suffolk.

“One of the biggest things that’s coming out of it, equipment-wise, is the need for cameras and the need to document certain situations,” Bennett said.

He said he has been informally researching body cameras, which can be worn either on the officer’s head or on the uniform and would record audio and video when activated by the officer.

“The cameras don’t lie,” Bennett said. “They record what they record.”

He said he especially favors a camera that would be worn on glasses, because that way it would record exactly what the officer sees when turning his or her head.

Bennett gave a real-life example discussed at a conference he attended where officers responded to a domestic-violence call. They found a man lying on the bed with a knife to his wife’s throat.

The man acted like he was about to comply with officers’ demands to put down the knife but then quickly brought it back up to her throat, Bennett said. The officers shot and killed the man to save her life.

But rumors surfaced that police had shot the man as he lay in bed asleep.

“They were getting very upset, as you can imagine,” Bennett said.

Faced with the public protests, police decided to release the video from the officers’ body cameras to the media.

“As soon as that happened, everything settled down because everybody saw what happened,” Bennett said.

The chief said Suffolk Police cars are equipped with in-car cameras that begin recording with the lights or sirens are turned on. But they only record video of what’s happening directly in front of the car.

“The majority of the time, what the officer says happened is what happened,” Bennett said.

City Council members seemed to support the extra equipment.

“Your willingness to be an advocate for the cameras shows the confidence in your department,” Councilman Mike Duman said. “It’s a two-way sword, and if you think you’re on the wrong end of it, you’re not going to push the cameras.”

Duman also noted a recent Old Dominion University survey, “Life in Hampton Roads,” that found 94 percent of Suffolk citizens said they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their police department. It was the highest rate in Hampton Roads for the two categories combined.

Asked by Councilman Roger Fawcett about the price of the cameras, Bennett said it likely would be less than $250,000 to outfit all officers needed.

“I believe Helivi (Holland, the city attorney) would tell you it would certainly be less than one lawsuit,” Bennett said.