First Virginia body camera law coming soon; several departments don’t have them

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The first body camera law in Virginia takes effect on July 1 but advocates say the state should go further.

Protests surrounding the death of George Floyd have reinvigorated conversations about police accountability in the commonwealth. Virginia NAACP State Conference President Robert Barnette says body cameras are part of the answer.

“Transparency, transparency, transparency. We need to be able to trust law enforcement,” Barnette said.

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) was behind the recently passed law that he says will make body camera policies more consistent statewide. He says you can’t hold officers accountable if standards aren’t in place before incidents occur.

“If you don’t have a policy, the officer can’t be punished,” Levine said. “They’re using all kinds of different standards and there is nothing in the law saying what those standards should be.”

The new law requires localities establish a written policy for the operation, maintenance and storage of body cameras, using the model policy established by the Department of Criminal Justice Services as a guide. It also requires a period of public comment before sheriffs and police departments deploy the equipment.

“So for the departments who already have it, this will encourage them to look back at old statutes but the requirement is actually for before new ones [cameras] are introduced,” Levine clarified.

The Compensation Board collected information about body camera resources from Commonwealth’s Attorneys in the summer and fall of 2019. Of the 120 localities, 23 didn’t have any body cameras in use and 10 were listed as “unknown.”

Some of the 87 localities that said they had the equipment didn’t report which departments had it specifically. Though it is possibly an undercount, the breakdown shows that at least 34 percent of about 370 police and sheriffs departments statewide have body cameras.

“I think we can do better,” Barnette said.

Levine said the legislation is a start that he hopes to build on in the future.

Barnette said he’d like to see all localities adopt the same policy. Under the new law, the DCJS model is permissive so there is no requirement for agencies to adopt the language word-for-word. DCJS’s 2015 guidelines say modifications may be needed to “meet operational, staffing, and budget constraints.”

Barnette said there are currently no requirements for when officers can turn cameras off and how long footage must be retained. He said concise policies need to be adopted, establishing ‘severe consequences for impermissibly turning off their recording devices or attempting to manipulate footage in any way.”

“We think the footage should be on continuously,” he said.

John Jones, the executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association, said they supported the law because it can also protect officers against false accusations. Jones said law enforcement groups opposed a mandate because of the cost barrier for some localities, who might not be able to afford the cameras and the expense of storing it.

Barnette said mandating cameras isn’t the right move without significant state funding to support the change.

“It would be a tremendous amount of money but you have to start somewhere,” Barnette said. “Body cameras–to my knowledge–have not been a priority within the state.”

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