City of Fairfax makes police body cameras mandatory
By Angela Woolsey/Fairfax County Times
ANGELA WOOLSEY/FAIRFAX COUNTY TIMES
The City of Fairfax Police Department launched its new body camera program on Thursday with minimal ceremony.
All patrol and motor officers for the city are now required to wear square black cameras when they leave the department station on Old Lee Highway. They must turn the devices on during encounters with members of the public that might become confrontational, including vehicle stops and disturbance call responses.
The program makes the City of Fairfax Police among the first departments in the Northern Virginia region to utilize body-worn cameras, according to the December issue of Cityscene, the city’s official monthly newsletter.
“The body camera program will significantly increase officer safety, enhance our ability to successfully accomplish our mission, boost trust, and increase accountability to the community,” City of Fairfax Police Sgt. Shawn Sutherland, who works in the community services section of the department’s public information office, said.
The department purchased 38 new body cameras using a $29,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, along with matching funds approved by the Fairfax City Council in its current budget.
According to Sutherland, the availability of federal financial assistance helped the city and police department decide to implement body cameras, and there has been little to no opposition to the program.
Each officer has an assigned body camera that they must pick up and inspect to ensure it’s working properly at the beginning of their shift. They put on the camera by attaching it to a frame that fits in their uniform chest pocket.
Department policy requires that officers activate their camera during all searches, vehicle and subject stops, accident investigations, foot and vehicle pursuits, pat-downs, any investigations of criminal activity where they interact with a civilian, prisoner transports in vehicles without an in-car camera, disturbance calls and incidents, and any other potentially confrontational situations.
Failure to turn on a camera when obligated would result in disciplinary action by a supervisor, though Sutherland says he can’t specify exactly what that would entail.
The City of Fairfax Police will store video footage from the cameras in a cloud-based server, where it must be kept in accordance with the Library of Virginia’s record retention schedule for state and local public records.
Police record retention varies depending on the kind of crime involved in each case. For instance, traffic stop records and internal affairs reviews are retained for one year, while misdemeanors range from five to 10 years and felonies 30 to 50 years based on whether or not the case was resolved.
Records for unresolved cases involving serious crimes against a person are retained for as many as 100 years after the case is officially closed.
Officers have read-only access to the video they record and can review the footage before filing case reports or testifying in court.
Public access to body camera footage will be limited to the discretion of the department, according to Sutherland, who says materials related to ongoing, active investigations or that include potentially sensitive content, such as witness interviews, won’t be released.
In addition to providing a new means to investigate citizen complaints, use-of-force incidents and prisoner injuries, the body camera program could benefit the officers themselves by serving as a new training and performance assessment tool. The footage will also be used to assist with criminal prosecutions.
Sutherland says that City of Fairfax officers are in support of the new program, since they believe it will improve officer safety as well as the department’s relationship with the public.
“I can tell you the City of Fairfax has a very good relationship with the community,” Sutherland said. “We’ve done a great job with our community here. The body cameras will just help enhance that trust with us.”
Calls for law enforcement agencies to utilize body cameras have increased over the past few years in the wake of highly publicized, often fatal uses of force by police officers against civilians, particularly communities of color and people experiencing mental health challenges.
The Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) has been subject to scrutiny since an officer shot and killed Springfield resident John Geer in 2013. The involved officer, Adam Torres, was later fired and sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty in June.
After undergoing review by an ad hoc commission assembled by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, FCPD has instituted some policy reforms since Geer’s death, such as a renewed focus on de-escalation during training and a new requirement that the name of officers involved in critical incidents be released within 10 days.
The Board of Supervisors recently approved recommendations to establish an office of the independent auditor to review use-of-force allegations and officer-involved shootings as well as a civilian review panel that will look into complaints of misconduct or abuse of authority by FCPD officers.
The board addressed the issue of body cameras at its June 21 meeting when supervisors unanimously approved a use-of-force recommendations plan that included an 18-month review period for the cameras, though FCPD Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. has said the department is ready to start a pilot program.
“What should be the deal with data collected from body worn cameras, and then also, once you’ve collected it, who has access to it?” Chairman Sharon Bulova asked during the board’s discussion of the plan. “Who can ask for it? Who can see it? That’s a bit more complicated…In a small jurisdiction, that might be easy. But in a large jurisdiction with the volume of data that our police department would be collecting, that is significant.”
The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office launched a pilot program with 42 body cameras in the fall of 2015, and the Prince William County Police Department conducted a 60-day body camera field test in August. Police in Arlington also started wearing body cameras in August for a pilot program designed to evaluate different kinds of cameras.
The police department for the City of Alexandria has said it’s ready for body cameras but is waiting until Fiscal Year 2018-19 to acquire funding.