Bibb sheriff seeking funds for 100 body cameras

Dozens of Bibb County deputies could be wearing body cameras next year.

Sheriff David Davis is seeking funding for 100 cameras in the fiscal 2016 budget, which would take effect in July.

“I think they are a valuable tool to bring clarity to an incident,” Davis said. “Before we do that, we’ve got to look at having a good sound policy in place.”

Davis has concerns over privacy rights on private property, procedures for storing the digital images and complying with open records requests. Guidelines also must be set as to when deputies should turn on the camera.

The sheriff plans to explore the technology options while evaluating cost.

“We’ve got to look at all the products, especially for the number we’d have to get,” Davis said.

He estimates nearly 300 cameras will be needed to outfit all patrol deputies, which could cost up to $300,000.

Warner Robins police have been testing several body cameras for school resource officers since February. One version integrates with their car surveillance systems.

“It’s a very expensive venture,” Chief Brett Evans said.

Cameras that work with a central server cost about $1,000 each, he said.

Evans also sees challenges in storing the amount of digital data the cameras will generate daily.

The Houston County Sheriff’s Office has been researching body cameras, said Capt. Ricky Harlowe.

“We don’t have any. We have looked at body cameras and are just seeing what’s on the market,” Harlowe said. “Most of our marked patrol cars have cameras already, but it’s another tool that we’d be able to use.”

Houston County’s research began before 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, which renewed interest in officer body cameras.

In the wake of that controversial encounter, President Barack Obama last week requested about $75 million in federal funds to equip 50,000 law enforcement officers with cameras.

Davis has the department’s grants coordinator looking for funding opportunities that could offset local spending for the equipment, which varies in cost depending on the features.

Some cameras take operating control away from the officer and put it in the hands of supervisors, who can remotely turn on the camera.

Bibb County’s policy discussion will determine whether the cameras should be in use all the time or only when an officer encounters someone. There is also debate about how to manage bathroom breaks and conversations with confidential informants.

Some of the more visible devices would not work for undercover officers.

Davis is also looking to other departments across the country who are already using the cameras.

At a recent International Chiefs of Police conference in Orlando, Florida, Davis learned of a study being conducted by the Orlando Police Department that will look at the effectiveness of the cameras and whether they reduced complaints against officers.

The University of Cambridge studied the Rialto, California, police force for a year and determined that cameras led to an 89 percent decrease in complaints.

Fort Valley police officers have had body cameras for about two years, and the department has seen similar results.

“They’ve been great for us. They’ve eliminated a lot of complaints,” Fort Valley Public Safety Director Lawrence Spurgeon previously told The Telegraph. “They’ve helped the officers with writing their reports, and it’s also been great as far as courtroom testimony.”

Advocates of the digital devices say the behavior of officers, suspects and citizens generally improves when cameras are rolling.

But Davis is quick to point out the cameras will not be a panacea for sorting out complicated incidents.

“You can have the video and audio and all that, but basically it’s just another witness,” Davis said. “In no way do they take the place of a detailed investigation looking at physical evidence.”

Information from the Associated Press and Telegraph archives contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.