- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) - Look up an article on police body cameras or tune into a recent broadcast about them, and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter a familiar name: Police Chief Kelvin Wright.

Here he was on Washington-based Governing magazine’s website in April: “Across this country, officers will wear these very much as they do their sidearm.”

And on National Public Radio two weeks later: “I think that as it becomes more prolific and that body-worn cameras become the norm, I think that we in law enforcement will be the better for it and I think society will see the benefits of it as well.”

He’s done interviews with newspapers across Virginia; a TV station in Kansas City, Missouri; even the news channel Al Jazeera America.

As the national conversation about police practices and body cameras continues, many agencies are turning to Wright for input. He was an early adopter of the cameras, with officers in his department using them since 2008.

Other departments now want to learn from Chesapeake.

“We’ve had quite a bit of activity from agencies far and wide,” Wright said.

The chief said he’s seen an increase in inquires in the last year, since public outcries over police killings of unarmed black men including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York. Wright and his IT department get a call just about every week from a police agency that wants to know about the cameras, and some departments have traveled to Chesapeake to see how they work.

Departments in Virginia’s Chesterfield and Henrico counties, Rhode Island, Kansas, New York City and the District of Columbia are some of the agencies that have reached out.

“All of this is new,” Wright said. “I really believe this will be an industry standard.”

Wright’s interest in police cameras dates back to his days as a traffic officer in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. He used a dashboard camera in his patrol car and said he learned from watching footage of himself.

He said it made him more aware that the people he interacted with needed to be treated with understanding. Wright changed his approach to be more compassionate, calm and polite, he said.

Wright became police chief in 2008, and the department that year purchased 90 body-worn cameras from the company Vievu using a U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance grant. After viewing a demo, Wright saw the benefits, he said. Most of an officer’s interactions with the public take place away from the patrol car, so it made sense for officers to wear the cameras, he said.

Wright also saw it as a way to understand complaints filed against police. The most common grievances were that officers acted rudely or crudely, and Wright saw the cameras as an “independent observer” that could capture what really happened.

The department began testing cameras from a different vendor, Taser, in 2011. At the time, the company told The Pilot only 12 agencies in the U.S. were using them.

Today Chesapeake officers are equipped with 256 Taser Axon cameras, with 14 more coming in June when a new batch of police academy graduates joins the department. Chesapeake estimates it costs about $1,800 each to outfit officers with the technology, paid for with a federal grant and the department’s operating budget.

Wright said complaints against officers have decreased thanks to the cameras. The department had 36 complaints in 2014, compared with 81 in 2012.

Interest in the technology has skyrocketed, and more than 3,000 agencies in the U.S. use Taser’s Axon cameras today.

For the first quarter of this year, the company said its body camera sales nearly quadrupled from the same period the year before.

While Chesapeake was the first city in Hampton Roads to acquire the technology, police in Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News now use cameras. Portsmouth’s police chief has said he wants his officers equipped by early August, and Suffolk will train police on its newly purchased cameras in June. Virginia Beach also is looking into the technology.

“It takes someone to break the ice,” said Steve Tuttle, a Taser spokesman.

The Henrico County Police Department met with Chesapeake last summer to work on its body camera policy. Henrico purchased 400 Taser Axon Flex cameras this year and has deployed 160 so far.

“They helped us write our policy based upon their experience,” said Lt. Chris Eley, spokesman for the Henrico department. “They were able to know what worked and what didn’t work.”

“They laid the groundwork.”

Eley said his department learned from talking with Chesapeake that it would need to hire someone to manage the footage.

Chesapeake police in 2013 provided more than 5,100 body camera videos to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to be used in criminal cases. With the footage in high demand, Chesapeake hired a video evidence coordinator last year to handle the requests.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Nancy Parr said her prosecutors have more video in DUI cases than any other type of case. Prosecutors also have found the footage helpful in domestic violence cases, she said.

“The biggest challenge has been for prosecutors to find the time to watch all the videos in their cases,” Parr wrote in an email. “It has added hours to their workweek, which already consisted of many hours over 40 hours.”

Wright said the next phase will be legislation, with departments looking to the General Assembly for guidance on how long to store footage and to whom video can be released.

Several bills that would have required police to wear body cameras failed in the General Assembly earlier this year. The Secure Commonwealth Panel, an advisory board appointed by the governor, is studying technology in law enforcement, including body cameras. The panel’s findings could help shape future legislation.

As for police departments making their first foray into the world of body cameras: “They have a monumental task ahead of them,” Wright said.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com

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