NC county approves body cameras for sheriff's office

In total, commissioners authorized the purchase of 213 body-worn cameras, each consisting of two pieces

By Kate Elizabeth Queram
News & Record

GREENSBORO — Deputies with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office could begin sporting body-worn cameras as early as January after commissioners approved the purchase Thursday night.

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners at its regular meeting unanimously voted to give the sheriff more cameras than he had requested to make sure that every patrol officer, including sergeants, could be outfitted with the technology.

In total, commissioners authorized the purchase of 213 body-worn cameras, each consisting of two pieces — a main camera and a secondary lens that attaches to an officer’s shoulder or glasses for a better vantage point.

The board also approved the purchase of 88 in-car systems that automatically trigger the body cameras when the blue lights are turned on, and when the car is involved in a wreck or goes faster than 90 mph.

Including licensing fees, the cameras are expected to cost $646,000, paid for through the county’s inmate welfare fund. That fund, which totaled about $1 million as of Oct. 27, contains money collected from prisoners through charges for telephone calls, among other expenses.

“It’s probably a good use of inmate welfare funds,” Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said. “While it’s not benefiting the inmate who’s already incarcerated, it may save the life of someone who will be incarcerated.”

The board began discussing body cameras for deputies in December at the request of Coleman, who said she was disturbed by incidents nationwide where unarmed African Americans were killed by law enforcement officers.

Sheriff BJ Barnes, who is in favor of the cameras, spent the better part of the year testing and reviewing different brands to determine the best fit for the department. Capt. Ken Whitesell, speaking to the board on behalf of the sheriff’s office, said that the department had settled on Panasonic cameras.

Deputies are familiar with the brand, as the department already uses in-car cameras made by Panasonic. Having portable cameras that integrate into the existing system will allow videos from both devices to be stored in the same place, Whitesell said.

That detail is key, as it allows the county to store the video locally rather than online, avoiding potentially hefty storage fees. But it was still unclear who would have access to the videos or whether the footage would be considered public domain.

Mark Payne, the county’s attorney, said that issue would need to be resolved by state legislators rather than at the municipal level.

“Raleigh really needs to address this specifically and do something about public records specific to body-worn cameras,” Payne said. “It is a minefield every time someone makes a request for it.”

The sheriff’s office will most likely buy the cameras in the next month or so, Whitesell said, and will deploy them in January.

Cameras will be mandatory for all patrol officers as well as the sheriff’s emergency response team, the detention tactical unit working in the jail, school resource officers and K9 patrol.

Each camera is expected to last between five and six years, according to county documents.

“In today’s society, and the way things have changed in the last couple of years, I think it’s crucial that we’re heading down this road,” Commissioner Alan Branson said.

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