Issues could develop in Mississippi over police body cameras

COMING TO A POLICE DEPARTMENT NEAR YOU?: The Victoria, Canada, Police Department has been using body-mounted video cameras since at least 2009.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Smile Mississippi, police may have you on camera.

Police body cameras could work as an accountability tool for patrol officers and help protect them from false abuse complaints. Studies have backed up the advantages of using the devices, but with technology and data storage come privacy concerns.

Columbus and Cleveland police are already using body cameras in Mississippi.

State Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, has proposed a bill for next year’s session that would have state taxpayers buying cameras for patrol officers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi supports the use of body cameras for police, but it acknowledges issues to address.

“Body cams can be a win-win,” said Rebecca Curry, director of policy and advocacy at the Mississippi ACLU in an interview with Mississippi Watchdog. “For police who have accusations filed against them, they can have a transcript of what actually happened. And if something went on, with police misconduct, the public has a right to know and they would assure accountability and transparency.”

Curry said procedures would need to be put into place to safeguard people’s privacy rights and give officers guidance about when to use the cameras and when to turn them off.

“I know the public might not be incredibly comfortable with you always being on film in any encounter with the police,” Curry said. “But there are some things we can do to put up some safeguards to protect the privacy of citizens, make sure the data is not retained too long and delineate guidelines for when a camera should be in use.”

Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey told Mississippi Watchdog he supports the use of the cameras, but address the issues first, he says.

ON CAMERA: The Rankin County Sheriff’s Department already has cameras in each of its patrol cars.

“It’s good idea and a good concept, but the body cam is the least expensive part of the process,” Bailey said. “What do you do with the video when it gets full? You have to download it somewhere.”

Bailey said all of his patrol cars are equipped with dash cameras that switch on automatically when a deputy exceeds the speed limit or turns on the emergency lights. The cameras, which are also used by the Mississippi Highway Patrol, can also be switched on manually.

The problem isn’t the cameras, but rather the video files, which are automatically downloaded to office servers when the car returns to the parking lot. Bailey said his server fills up rapidly, since his agency has a policy of not deleting any video. As a result, his staff is constantly burning DVDs of the footage.

He said that’s not a problem he has with the county jail’s cameras, which keep footage for only 30 days unless required for evidence. If the state funds the cameras, Bailey said, there would need to be a statewide procedure on their use, addressing issues on how long to store footage and when a camera would be turned on or off.

“It would take another full-time person just to keep up with the videos, managing it and storing it and hauling it to court,” Bailey said. “If they (the Legislature) wants to fund that, too, the personnel, the server and all of the related stuff to it, I’ll look into it.

“But before the state of Mississippi jumps into it, there needs to be a committee of state, county and local law enforcement … to make a statewide policy and procedure where everyone is on the same page and everyone operates the same way.”

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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