Here’s what we know about police body cameras in Chattanooga

Authored By david.morton

One year after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, public opinion has moved swiftly and overwhelmingly in favor of police body cameras. 

Many law enforcement agencies, which have explored the technology for almost a decade, also want them. They say the cameras aid investigations and reduce unfounded complaints against officers. 

But even with widespread support, the pager-size devices pose new questions for citizens, police and elected officials.

“The public is becoming aware of how important these cameras are,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. “What hasn’t been discussed is ensuring the rights of individuals to their privacy.” 

Unlike in-dash systems, police wear the cameras inside people’s homes, where they might record minors or victims of crime.

Some states have already considered limits on public access to footage. Earlier this summer, South Carolina adopted legislation exempting body camera video from its Freedom of Information Act.

For large agencies, there are also financial concerns. Hundreds of officers would be recording every day. Business models and pricing are changing as more cities enter the market. Cloud storage is a growing revenue stream for some camera manufacturers.

“We know there are going to be significant long-term costs,” Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said. “We’re going to spend the next couple of years looking at this issue.”

Many departments in Hamilton County already use body-worn cameras or plan to purchase them in the next 12 months.

Law enforcement officials discussed the programs in interviews and written surveys.

Local body camera programs
Agency Sworn personnel Camera Launch
Chattanooga 486 TBD
Hamilton County 325 TBD
East Ridge 37 L3 BodyVision June 2015
Collegedale 23 Digital Ally FirstVu April 2015
Signal Mountain 16 Digital Ally 2015
Lookout Mountain 16 CopVu 2010
Chattanooga Housing Authority 6 full time, 20 part time Taser Axon 2012
Source: Data compiled by from law enforcement agency surveys

The Chattanooga Police Department is field testing cameras and could purchase up to 140, depending on the outcome of a Justice Department grant. CPD currently has $50,000 in capital funds to purchase approximately 50.

The department’s size, 486 sworn personnel in all, makes a camera program expensive and complex to implement.

“This is clearly something the community wants,” Chief Fred Fletcher said. “It’s a new technology and a new concept and a new practice. It’s probably going to need new funding.”

Before launching, the department wants to have a policy in place outlining usage and public access to video. Fletcher has asked the ACLU of Tennessee to help write CPD’s guidelines.

Hamilton County
The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is also doing field tests. It would like to eventually outfit all of its 175 sworn and certified personnel, plus some who work in the jail, with Digital Ally cameras.

G.A. Bennett, director of support services, said the cameras can combat negative perceptions of law enforcement, assist in court cases and change behavior in officer-citizen interactions.

“The future is here, and we strongly feel that our agency needs to equip our officers with the tools required to protect themselves and our citizens,” he said. 

East Ridge
Patrol officers with the East Ridge Police Department began using L3 BodyVision cameras in June. Officers manually activate the devices to record all law enforcement contacts and are expected to notify citizens that they are being recorded, according to department policy.

The cameras are docked on city computers at the end of shifts to recharge them and upload video, which is stored in-house. 

Assistant Chief Stan Allen said it took a few days for officers to get accustomed to turning the cameras on, but the department has not had any issues with them.

“It’s such a simple thing,” he said. “It’s not really that much more work.” 

Full-time patrol officers and detectives with the Collegedale Police Department were issued Digital Ally FirstVu cameras last April. The department owns 20 cameras that retail for $800 each. It also spent nearly $10,000 on a video storage system. The money comes from federal and local funds.

“We started using the body-worn cameras because many of our contacts are made in the field, and the in-car cameras cannot capture these interactions,” Chief Brian Hickman said.

The Collegedale city attorney is reviewing the department’s policy, which will soon be available for review, Hickman said. The cameras can be activated manually or by integrated in-dash systems. 

Signal Mountain
The Signal Mountain Police Department will spend $9,100 on 13 Digital Ally cameras that will go to patrol officers and supervisors. A mix of state and local funds will be used. 

Chief Mike Williams said video will be stored on in-house computers. The department’s policies are still being written in anticipation of purchasing the cameras within 60 days, he said.

Lookout Mountain
Officers with the Lookout Mountain Police Department started wearing small video cameras on their shoulders in 2010. Now, its 14 patrol officers wear CopVu body cameras that cost around $800 each. The cameras were paid for with state and local government funds. 

The cameras are activated manually for traffic stops, disorders, arrests and building searches, according to department policy. 

Video is stored in-house. Officers make about 30 stops a month in the town of 1,900 people, Chief Randall Bowden said.

“With our small department, we don’t have a storage problem yet,” he said.

Chattanooga Housing Authority
The Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Department first purchased cameras in 2012. Its 12 Taser Axon cameras cost between $300 and $600. The department also spends $4,000 a year on data storage and maintenance.

Chief Felix Vess said the cameras help with criminal investigations and record statements, and improve relationships with residents in the public housing sites the agency polices.

“Body cameras will not solve all issues, but at least there will be a full, unedited version of the incident that occurred,” he said.

Other local agencies
Police departments in Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy do not have plans to purchase body cameras.