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Soon, Carolina’s public safety officers may have a new tool at their fingertips – or more precisely, on their uniforms.

At semester’s end, Chief Jeff McCracken, director of public safety, hopes to have all of Carolina’s 53 sworn officers equipped with body-worn cameras when they go on patrol. Matt Fajack, vice chancellor for finance and administration, has approved McCracken’s $60,000 request to purchase the new equipment.

Using the small cameras to record actions and dialogue between police officers and the people they encounter is a growing national trend. It gained more attention in the wake of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown Jr. by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking protests across the country. And President Barack Obama at the end of the year asked Congress for $75 million to help purchase 50,000 body cameras for officers nationwide and provide training in how to use them.

The University began exploring use of the body cameras in spring 2013, McCracken said. Police cruisers have had dashboard cameras for years, and in a sense the body cameras are an extension of that record-keeping capability.

“Using the cameras promotes accountability and transparency all the way around,” he said. “They are effective in preserving evidence in criminal cases and can help provide answers to any follow-up questions on both sides. In addition, footage taken can be a valuable training tool.”

Departments that have used the body-worn cameras have seen a significant drop in complaints against officers, McCracken said. “Behaviors improve across the board when people know they
are being recorded,” he explained.

In fact, a recent report released by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Police Executive Research Forum supports this observation. The evidence suggests that body-worn cameras help strengthen accountability and transparency and that behavior from both officers and civilians is more positive when they know a camera is present, the report said.

“We see the body-worn cameras as another means to help our public safety officers keep the University community safe. That’s our primary objective,” Fajack said.

“Police departments in the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro are considering the use of body cameras as well, and this would provide another opportunity for our three police departments to employ similar tools and resources as we work together.”

Much work is still required, though, before Carolina’s public safety officers can hit the roads, walkways and bicycle paths with the new cameras.

Besides deciding which devices to purchase among the growing options available, McCracken said, the Department of Public Safety has to examine data storage issues – not only capability, but also when and how data should be downloaded and how long it should be preserved.

Then, there are procedural issues to fine-tune – when the cameras should and should not be used – and an overall University policy governing use of the body-worn cameras has to be developed, McCracken said.

A public safety team is field-testing the devices and working toward answers to these questions, he said.

“We have a cadre of good officers at Carolina, and being able to have this new tool available is an opportunity to help the campus community feel even more confident in how we respond to people’s concerns,” McCracken said. “It really is about being more transparent in all that we do.”

By Patty Courtright, University Gazette

Published February 16, 2015