Here’s the deal with body cameras in the Virginia Beach Police Department

Capt. Todd Jones of the Virginia Beach Police Department discusses body cams. The dock contains the body-worn cameras that will eventually be worn by all Virginia Beach police officers (Joshua Weinstein/Southside Daily)
Capt. Todd Jones of the Virginia Beach Police Department discusses body cams. The dock contains the body-worn cameras that will eventually be worn by all Virginia Beach Police officers (Southside Daily file photo)

VIRGINIA BEACH — City officials said evidence from the May 31 Municipal Center shooting includes body-worn camera footage from some of the officers who responded to Building 2 that day.

Worth noting: While some of the officers were equipped with body cams, some of them weren’t.

“The four officers who engaged the suspect were not wearing cameras; other responding officers were wearing cameras, including those who searched the building and helped people exit,” officials wrote in a recent statement.

It’s been nearly a year since Virginia Beach Police Chief Jim Cervera announced the department will start rolling out body-worn cameras but, said spokeswoman Linda Kuehn, “they’re not yet fully implemented.”

“Our plan is to issue cameras to officers in four phases with roughly 110 officers per phase,” she said. “This gives us time to conduct workload assessments and address any concerns as we gradually progress towards full implementation.”

RELATED STORY: Virginia Beach Police unveils plan for body-worn cameras

During the first phase, the police department captured and have to manage roughly 28,000 body-cam videos — and the next phase is scheduled for July, Kuehn said.

“This will get us close to 50 percent of our desired goal of 450 officers,” she said.

Part of the plan to manage that workload included hiring five new police officers over five years, and more staff in the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office who would review the footage.

Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle said the city is providing an additional seven attorneys, four paralegals, and two support staff employees as a result of the new body-worn cameras program.

“It’s a game changer,” he said. “It’s changing how we function, how we prosecute cases, and how the court hears cases.”

Stolle said his concern is not necessarily the number of videos police collect, but the amount of hours the office’s attorneys are required to watch.

“Depending on the number of officers wearing a camera on the scene, for one case, watching video could increase an attorney’s prep time from 45 to 60 minutes to five hours,” he said.

The attorneys don’t handle all body-worn camera video, “just felonies, DUI, domestic violence, and misdemeanors with an appeal to the circuit court,” Stolle said.

But, they’re also responsible for redacting certain audio information and going frame-by-frame to blur a witness’s face in the video which “could take about three hours for 30 minutes of footage.”

“If an officer interviews a witness who gives their name, address, and phone number on camera, we won’t release that information to the defendant,” he said. “We also have to edit out an officer’s commands to a K9, those are not supposed to be released.”

Stolle noted overall body-worn cameras are a great tool for law enforcement and even though the office is going through “growing pains” right now, “if you ask again in three to four years,” he’d say, “it’s going smoothly.”

Stolle said Virginia Beach “has become the example for the rest of the state” on how to properly work together to introduce body cameras.

“City officials have gone out of their way to ensure my office has what we need to deal with the changes,” he said.

Kuehn said the department is fully aware body cameras increase the workload for other agencies which is why they are implementing them in phases.

“We give our InfoTech and Commonwealth Attorneys time to evaluate how their respective agencies are impacted by adding this technology,” she said.

Kuehn said the police force expects to be fully equipped with body-worn cameras by early 2020.

Here are a few other things to know about the body-worn cameras in Virginia Beach:

  • When the body cams are docked, their batteries charge and their digital information is sent to Axon cloud servers.
  • Those servers are located in southern Virginia and Iowa, said Peter Wallace, chief information officer for the city. The Axon servers are stored spaces which meet Department of Justice cyber-security standards.
  • Officers will turn on cameras to record “official police interactions” only, but the cameras also store 30 seconds of video prior to recording.
  • Cameras automatically turn on if gun or taser are drawn from officers’ holsters.
  • All body cam videos are retained for at least 60 days “unless we find a reason to keep it,” Cervera said. Reasons could include videos being evidence for a crime or an administrative investigation
  • The police department is governed by the Library of Virginia’s record retention policy.
  • Five-year contract with Axon will cost between $4.4 million and $5.6 million.

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