Body cameras increase workload

Published 9:52 pm Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The city has declined to authorize additional hiring in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office after Suffolk’s top prosecutor says his office’s workload has increased because of police body cameras.

Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips “Phil” Ferguson said watching the videos produced by body cameras adds preparation time to even the most routine cases.

“You can’t go in and try a case if you have video involved if you haven’t watched the video,” Ferguson said.

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There could be irrefutable evidence on the video, Ferguson noted, or there could be something there that favors the defendant. Sometimes, the video doesn’t change the case one way or the other. But there’s no way to know any of that without watching the video.

Ferguson said a typical, routine drunken driving case normally takes about 30 minutes to prepare, but the addition of body camera video has added about another hour per case. For each officer on the scene, there’s another body camera video to review.

Suffolk’s entire police department began using body cameras in June. Suffolk Police Chief Thomas Bennett said at the time the cameras would adjust people’s behavior — both that of officers and citizens — and help avoid disputes about what actually happened in controversial situations.

Police operate the cameras only when performing law enforcement activities, such as during a traffic stop or foot chase.

“There’s a lot of good things about having body cameras,” Ferguson said. “It just is what it is.”

Interim City Manager Patrick Roberts told Ferguson in a letter it would be premature to authorize additional hiring at this point.

“Because the program is in its infancy, the full impact cannot be determined until the program is fully operational and we have had a more substantial amount of data from which to ascertain the true effect on operational workloads,” Roberts wrote.

He also said the police department “has already implemented policy which will reduce the amount of video needing to be captured,” but city spokeswoman Diana Klink wrote in an emailed response to questions that there were no changes from the policy initially implemented.

Roberts also referred to the experiences of prosecutors’ offices in the three other Hampton Roads jurisdictions that already use police body cameras — Norfolk, Chesapeake and Newport News.

“It should be noted that the (Commonwealth’s Attorney’s) office in each of these three cities have not increased their workforce to accommodate the additional requirements associated with the program,” Roberts wrote. He said they did acknowledge attorneys were spending more time reviewing the footage but agree the benefits outweigh the burdens.

“In fact, it has been said that having the indisputable evidence provided by the body cameras often results in an easier prosecution process and reduced trial time,” Roberts wrote.

Amanda Howie, director of communications in the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, acknowledged reviewing body camera video has created more work.

“It’s kind of just understood that anytime you have another resource, it’s going to add another element as far as what you need to do,” she said. “It’s still pretty early in the process for us to weigh in on their impact on our daily workload.”

She added Norfolk’s office, with 35 prosecutors, is much larger than Suffolk’s 13-member roster of attorneys.

Ferguson said he will revisit the issue in the next budget process. He noted he has had no increase in the number of prosecutors on his staff since approximately 2006 or 2007, despite a 49-percent increase in felony indictments since that time.

“We’ll see how it works out,” he said.