At one time, they might have been seen as a novelty. But after a year of calls for greater police accountability across the nation, many communities increasingly see them as a necessity.
Police in Prince William County will become the latest in Virginia to be outfitted with body cameras, perhaps as soon as July. County officials last week approved a $3 million plan to equip 500 officers with the technology, which criminologists, police accountability advocates and many officers say is beneficial because the cameras provide a video record of interactions with the public.
“It has a civilizing effect on both sides of the camera,” said Police Chief Stephan Hudson, an advocate for the cameras. His department will join officers in Chesapeake, Aquia Harbour (a community in Stafford County), Roanoke and Lynchburg, which have also recently approved body camera measures.
Hudson said the plan would begin in July with a pilot rollout to about 50 officers. He said officials have yet to settle on the make and model of the cameras and are trying to determine how to address issues such as storing the massive amounts of video footage they generate. Widespread use throughout the department should begin after an undetermined trial period.
Police departments across the nation have been examining their camera policies after several high-profile cases of civilian deaths during police stops, including the August shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the shooting of Walter Scott, 50, in South Carolina this month.
Hudson said his department began considering the use of a camera system in 2013. The department opted to focus on body cameras instead of the dashboard-mounted cameras in patrol cars that some districts favor.
“My preference for body cameras is they go more places and see more interactions in terms of how police engage with the community in a variety of settings,” Hudson said. “Dash cameras are great at capturing what happens in front of the police car, but once the scenario leaves that area or goes into different directions, the dash camera doesn’t capture any of that.”
County supervisors passed the body camera plan as part of their newly approved $2.7 billion 2016 budget, including about $507 million for the school system. Supervisors also offered the school board $1 million in matching funds for an initiative to reduce class sizes. To use the money, the school board must find an additional $1 million.
Supervisors Peter K. Candland (R-Gainesville) and Jeanine Lawson (R-Brentsville), who introduced a version of the matching funds plan, said the county has some of the largest class sizes in Virginia.
“It’s a small step forward, but it’s a step forward,” Candland said of the plan.
Schools spokesman Phil Kavits said it would take $15 million to reduce each grade by one student division-wide. Kavits said school board members are not only exploring funding but also “how to use it to reduce class sizes in a way that makes a difference.”
When approving the budget Tuesday, supervisors also set a real estate tax rate of $1.122 per $100 of assessed value. The rate is lower than the 2015 rate of $1.148 per $100 of assessed value, but because home values have increased, the average homeowner’s tax bill will rise by about 3.9 percent.
Candland and Lawson cast the two dissenting votes, saying they wanted to lower taxes.
Chairman Corey A. Stewart (At Large), who is seeking the Republican nomination to retain his seat, said he understands their objections.
“I’m a Republican, too, and I want low taxes, but at the same time we’ve got to pay for quality services,” said Stewart, who noted that this year’s budget will increase the ranks of police officers and firefighters, as well as build new roads and parks. “This is an affluent community, and they expect top quality services, and those cost money.”