A Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman says she wants city police to join the ranks of New Orleans, Thibodaux and other police departments across the country that are using body cameras to increase officer accountability.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said recent news stories involving police, both locally and nationally, motivated her to put pressure on the Baton Rouge Police Department to consider the surveillance technology.
Marcelle said she grew concerned watching the brutal confrontation between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old man, by a police officer last month.
“I want to prevent something like that from happening in Baton Rouge as much as possible,” she said. “People will tend to be more cautious of what they’re doing if they know someone’s looking.”
Marcelle also has questions about Michael Elsbury, a Baton Rouge police officer, who resigned last week after WBRZ-TV reported he sent some racist text messages, including one that reportedly said: “I wish someone would pull a Ferguson on them and take them out. I hate looking at those African monkeys at work … I enjoy arresting those thugs with their saggy pants.”
Marcelle said the text “brings questions to peoples’ mind about arrests he’s made in the community, and rightfully so.”
Ultimately, body cameras would benefit both officers and the public they serve, Marcelle said. She said recordings could protect officers from false claims made against them. But the councilwoman also said she often hears complaints from constituents about officers using excessive force or searching cars or property without permission.
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you shouldn’t have any problem with wanting to wear a camera,” she said.
Marcelle is asking the Metro Council to discuss the use of technology and possible funding sources at the Wednesday evening Metro Council meeting. Ultimately, the council cannot compel the Police Department to purchase the equipment. The police chief answers to Mayor-President Kip Holden, who sets the department’s budget.
Marcelle estimated the costs would be about $200,000.
Baton Rouge police officials said they were open to the idea.
Cpl. Don Coppola Jr., a Baton Rouge police spokesman, said the agency would be interested in reviewing the possibility of acquiring body cameras if the opportunity arose.
Costs and technical issues associated with mobile video surveillance would likely be the major hurdles to equipping officers with body cameras. But Coppola agreed the benefits include increased officer safety and accountability.
Chris Stewart, president of the Baton Rouge Union of Police, said considerable research needs to be done before any decision is made to supply officers with body cameras.
“It’s not a bad thing to have that kind of technology,” Stewart said. “We just have to make sure it’s conducive to our environment.”
The New Orleans Police Department has used the technology since April, via a contract with Taser International worth about $290,000 per year. The contract covers 420 cameras and digital storage of videos.
But an evaluation of New Orleans police practices released earlier this month found that body cameras were being used inconsistently. Of 145 “use of force” reports reviewed, only 49 indicated the incident had been recorded.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said the department must do a better job of enforcing use of the cameras. She noted that when an NOPD officer shot a man in the head during a traffic stop in Algiers in August, the officer did not have the body camera turned on.
“I am strongly in favor of any police department having body cams in any way that the public can review, but you have to make sure it’s actually in use all the time and that there are penalties for officers who don’t use them properly,” she said.
New Orleans uses city funding for its body camera program but the Thibodaux Police Department — the first in the state to use body cameras — funds the technology with grant money from a local nonprofit organization.
“It didn’t cost the Police Department a dime to equip the department with the body cameras,” said Cpl. David Melancon, a spokesman for the Thibodaux Police Department.
The video footage sheds light on aspects of police encounters that would not normally make it into a report, such as the tone of each person involved, emotionally suggestive expressions and other lighting and environmental settings. The videos provide prosecutors with a new, invaluable evidential tool, he said.
“It changes the whole dynamic,” Melancon said.
Thibodaux no longer uses traditional dashboard cameras in its police units.
Baton Rouge police still use dash cams in the majority of their marked cars. The footage is reviewed as needed, and many officers wear lapel microphones to supplement audio with the video recordings, said Coppola, the department spokesman.
Nationwide, the popularity of body cameras for police departments is on the rise.
In Ferguson, surveillance companies donated 50 body cameras to the embattled police department, which are currently being used.
Elsewhere, more than 1,200 law enforcement agencies have purchased wearable cameras from Taser International, according to Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for the company. He said 80 percent of body camera sales have occurred in the last 12 months.