Richmond police debut body cameras

Richmond police officers started using body cameras for the first time this week, a department spokeswoman said Friday.

The body cameras went into operation on Sunday and were rolled out through the week with most of the officers receiving the cameras by today, Sgt. Nicole Abetkov said.

Only 120 cameras were issued to the roughly 180-person department and they will mostly be used by patrolmen, Abetkov said, though some detectives and a few select officers in various specialty units will also wear them.

Abetkov said the cameras are part of the next wave in policing and the department was eager to jump on board:

“It’s the wave of the future. … That’s where law enforcement is going these days.”

The body cameras are just one tool among many to assist officers in their everyday work, Abetkov said.

The department also uses ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection and location tool, and PredPol, a predictive policing software application that identifies emerging crime trends and allows departments to better direct officers to crime hot spots.

Abetkov said:

“We’re a pretty progressive department, technology-wise. … The body cams are one of the next things that the department is going to start utilizing just like departments all over the country.”

Abetkov said the department was able to secure a nearly $85,000 grant to purchase the cameras. She said studies have shown that officers who use the cameras experience a decrease in citizen complaints and they can help departments more clearly assess whether complaints should be validated.

The cameras could also be useful in changing the way the public interacts with officers on the street, as has been shown in other departments, Abetkov said, or they could be helpful in providing evidence to solve cases or convict suspected criminals:

“I do think it will be a good tool. … Obviously we will have to wait and see what the reaction is with the public as more people have more interactions with officers who have them on. It’s hard to say right now.”

Although the American Civil Liberties Union has aired some privacy concerns with the cameras, Abetkov said the video footage would likely not be released to the public, except under extenuating circumstances. Only the police chief and the district attorney will have the authority to release video footage from the body camera feeds, Abetkov said.

In the wake of protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers in Missouri and New York, respectively, many civil rights organizations have called for body cameras on all police officers.

Critics argue that officers can just turn the cameras off or fail to turn them on in the first place. Abetkov said the department’s current policy gives officers discretion about when to turn the cameras on:

“Depending on what kind of interaction it is, when it comes to privacy stuff, or victims of certain crimes in domestic violence or sexual assault cases, we already have to advise (victims) that their names or other information won’t be released publicly and they will also be advised about the camera being active and on.”

Already, there have been a few snafus with downloading the video footage, batteries dying, and officers forgetting to turn the cameras on. With only a week of experience using the cameras, Abetkov said there are bound to be some hitches:

“First and foremost, we still have to take officer safety as paramount. … If you’re responding to something and you don’t activate (your camera) because of that, obviously, you won’t have any repercussions. It’s just like any other tool.”

The cameras will take some getting used to, Abetkov said:

“There’s going to be a newlywed period, or an adjustment period. … Officers are still getting used to turning it on and we’ve had some glitches … but we’re trying to work on that.”