The workgroup examining the effects of body-worn cameras on the public safety and judicial systems held its second meeting on September 4. This workgroup, created in Appropriations Act language, is an expansion of a 2018 effort to address the more narrowly-focused issue of the effect of body-worn camera use on Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ offices. (VACo reported on the origins of the workgroup and its first meeting in an earlier edition of County Connections).
The group’s July 29 meeting focused largely on the legislative history of the issue and recent work to track the additional time required for prosecutors to review body-worn camera footage in order to comply with standards for ethical conduct. The September 4 meeting featured presentations by other affected parties, including the defense bar and law enforcement. Representatives from local governments also presented case studies of the costs and benefits of deploying the cameras.
A common thread running through much of the discussion at the meeting was the value of the cameras in promoting public trust in the justice system and generating valuable evidence for both prosecutors and defense attorneys, paired with concerns about the costs associated with use of the cameras. David Johnson, Executive Director of the Indigent Defense Commission, discussed the concerns of public defenders and court-appointed defense counsel regarding the additional time required for viewing body-worn camera footage in order to provide appropriate representation to their clients. Low rates of compensation for court-appointed counsel exacerbate this concern. However, Mr. Johnson pointed out that participants in a recent survey of defense attorneys generally supported the use of the cameras as an element of the justice system, pointing to acquittals associated with the evidence provided by the cameras, as well as the ability for defense counsel to advise clients to accept reasonable plea offers when the camera footage provided evidence of guilt. The Indigent Defense Commission received funding for additional paralegals in the 2019 Appropriations Act; Mr. Johnson expressed appreciation for this appropriation, which he explained will help mitigate administrative tasks associated with the cameras even though paralegals would not be assisting with review of footage themselves.
City of Suffolk Circuit Court Clerk W. Randolph Carter, Jr., spoke on behalf of the Circuit Court Clerks about technological issues posed by the use of body-worn camera evidence in trials. Server bandwidth issues remain a concern. Mr. Carter pointed out that the revenue generated by the Technology Trust Fund fee ($5 assessed upon each civil action or recordation of a deed or a lien), which is allocated for Clerks’ technology needs, is subject to an annual transfer of approximately $2 million. These revenues are redirected to fund general operating costs in Clerks’ offices in order to replace state General Fund dollars that would otherwise have supported these expenses.
City of Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright spoke about his department’s experience with body-worn cameras, explaining that the use of the cameras is a best practice in modern policing, in his view, and noting that advances in technology are expected in the future – for example, the ability to live-stream video from officers’ cameras to a command post is anticipated to be available in the next generation of camera systems. His department has experienced a decline in citizen complaints about interactions with police since the deployment of the cameras, and the footage has presented opportunities for training officers to improve service delivery. He noted that significantly more data storage has been required for the footage than was originally expected. A representative of the Charlottesville Police Department echoed Chief Wright’s view that the use of the cameras is an increasingly expected element of law enforcement, though he pointed out that the cameras, which supplement an existing in-car camera program, are not without costs to the City.
Vivian McGettigan, Deputy County Administrator for York County, provided a case study of the camera program in her locality from the perspective of local government administration. York County adopted its cameras relatively early in comparison with neighboring jurisdictions, and has made modifications to its system since its adoption in 2014, including expansion of capacity for deputies to upload footage at sites throughout the county and the provision of an additional position to its Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to assist with workload issues. Ms. McGettigan pointed out that despite the costs to the County, County leadership view the program as a wise investment in ensuring public trust in the judicial system, particularly given the large number of visitors to York County’s historical sites. She noted that the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the County was also supportive of the program, suggesting that jurors expect to see digital evidence and that the clarity of evidence provided by the cameras may expedite plea agreements in some cases. City of Fredericksburg Police Chief David Nye offered a vivid demonstration of the benefits of the cameras by showing videos of several incidents in which Fredericksburg police personnel were involved; the video evidence assisted in resolving several complaints against the department as well as underscoring during a sentencing hearing the severity of an assault committed against an officer.
The workgroup’s next meeting, scheduled for October 8, is planned to be its last for this year, as its report is due November 15. Several members stressed the importance of resources in addressing the effects of this type of evidence on the justice system. VACo has consistently supported full state funding for state-responsible functions, such as meeting the Compensation Board’s staffing standards for Constitutional offices.