Fairfax OKs body-camera pilot for police

About 230 Fairfax County police officers in early 2018 began wearing Axon body-worn cameras as part of a 90-day pilot program. Members of the Board of Supervisors in September 2019 agreed to provision all county police with body cams. (Fairfax County police)

Fairfax County supervisors on Nov. 21 unanimously agreed to begin a 90-day pilot program in early 2018 to determine the efficacy of equipping county police officers with body-worn cameras.

About 230 officers from the Mount Vernon and Mason district stations will participate in the program, which is designed to promote transparency and accountability while safeguarding the public’s constitutional and personal-privacy rights.

The program will cost $684,151 to implement. Officers will receive training before donning the cameras full-time on the outside of their uniforms or ballistic vests and police will arrange the training to minimize further costs and stay within the department’s overtime budget, said Col. Edwin Roessler Jr., the county’s police chief.

Department policy will require officers to turn on the cameras during service calls, searches and stops of vehicles and people. Officers should turn on the cameras when arriving at or responding to incidents, or when it is safe and practical to do so. Cameras should be left on throughout an incident’s duration, including the transport of people to detention facilities.

While community members have no expectation of privacy during police interactions in public, they may decline to be recorded in private areas such as their homes, unless police are conducting a criminal investigation, arrest or search there.

Police will not switch on the cameras in courthouses or medical facilities unless an arrest or use of force is imminent. Officers also will not record if community members are giving statements about alleged rapes or sexual assaults or if they request anonymity when reporting crimes.

“We will have situations where one officer has a camera and one does not,” he said.

Not all of Mason District is served by the police station with that name, and hence not all officers the public encounters there will be wearing cameras, said Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason).

“We need to be able to manage those expectations of our constituents,” she said.

The program’s cost covers personnel expenses for implementing the program and for storing the data produced, preparing the evidence for court and complying with Freedom of Information Act requests. Police will spend about $8,000 at each participating station to upgrade power and network access for the camera program.

The program’s vendor, Axon, will provide cameras, software and data storage. The company will store the program’s data for free for the first three years, then charge about $124,000 per year to store the information (and double that amount if the initiative is extended to 180 days).

County police will store data from routine police activity only for a few years, but recordings involving unsolved criminal investigations, allegations of officer misconduct or other critical incidents may need to be retained for up to a century, officials said.

While video cameras in police cruisers switch on as soon as officers activate their emergency equipment (such as flashing lights), officers will have to turn on their body-worn cameras manually in accordance with police policies, Roessler said.

Using technology (e.g., on officers’ firearm holsters) to turn on cameras in certain situations would drive up the program’s costs, police said.

Richard Bennett of American University’s Department of Justice, Law and Criminology will conduct a comprehensive study of the program’s effects, including use-of-force statistics, community complaints, shifts in police activity and community members’ assessment of police legitimacy. The 270-day study will cover periods before, during and after the program’s implementation.

“The importance here is on the scientific study,” said Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), who chairs the board’s Public Safety Committee. “We don’t want to mess around with things that will skew the results, because a year from now we’re going to have to receive the report and assess the program.”

The initiative follows a recommendation from the October 2015 final report of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, which county officials formed following the August 2013 fatal police shooting of Kingstowne resident John Geer. Officer Adam Torres, who shot Geer during a standoff, later was fired by the police department and pleaded guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter. He served slightly less than a year in jail and has been released.

Supervisor Daniel Storck (D-Mount Vernon) said the program was an opportunity to forge better understanding between police and the public.

Storck said he had been out on police patrols and noticed that during some interactions between police and local residents, “the officers are incredibly respectful and what they get back isn’t always so respectful.”

“I think having cameras [reminds people] that their behavior is a two-way street and clearly needs to be handled respectfully on both sides,” Storck said.

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