Davin Eldridge – Staff Writer

In an age when public scrutiny has increasingly called for greater government transparency and law enforcement reforms, police agencies big and small have rapidly (and often times reluctantly) been brought into the fold. How? The vast presence of personal devices and social media beget new allegations of police misconduct by the week. As more departments find themselves embroiled in controversies, lawsuits and protests, local governments succumb to the pressure by issuing body cameras for on-duty cops to wear. 

It’s not as if body cameras are only available to huge metropolitan agencies. According to District Attorney Ashley Welch, of the 30th Prosecutorial District, a little more than half or so of all police and sheriff’s departments have been outfitted so far in the area. 

“I think the time has come for all law enforcement to be outfitted with cameras,” she said. “Whether or not the time has come for all of our departments to afford them, that’s something else entirely. But I believe it is certainly best for everyone, for the public and also for our officers, to have them.”

First Sergeant Jake Chapman has been with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office for the last 14 years. He said just in the last few years his department began looking into wearing body cams as part of their uniform. It would be a welcome addition, he added.

“I wish we kind of did have them,” he said. “We’re just not given the funding. We’ve used cheap ones in the past. They don’t seem to hold up very well. Some can be hooked up to our vest, and those have their plusses and minuses.”

Chapman said it’s a budgetary problem that law enforcement throughout the entire region has had to face over the years.

“Especially in this day and age, it’s very easy for the public to lose faith in what we do,” he said. “And I can see why. Are there ‘bad’ officers out there? Some, I’m sure. But that’s with every job. With this job, you have to find quality people for the job, and that’s just not happening as much as we’d like. So cameras are even more needed around here.”

Clay County Sheriff’s Office was issued body cameras nearly a year ago. But because of their expense, not every officer has been issued one, according to the department. To get around that hurdle, county officers share their cameras instead. The cameras are only used by officers on duty.

Franklin and Highlands Police Departments received their body cameras back in 2016, with the help of block grants. Highlands Police Chief Mike Jolly said they were a welcome addition to the force of about a dozen officers – one which had been planned for in advance.

“I think they’re great,” Jollie said. “We’ve had a lot of success with them, and they allow us to go out with more assurance, for sure.”

Bob Scott, mayor of the town of Franklin, wrote in an open letter to area media outlets that he agreed with a recent ordinance passed in Buncombe County, allowing Asheville city council members to view police body cam footage. The legislation came on the heels of leaked footage depicting two officers brutalizing a local man for jaywalking.

“I have to say that this needs to be statewide for all city councils, not just the City of Asheville,” he wrote. “I do not understand the reluctance of some in in the General Assembly who are so against this. The Town of Franklin, was among the first in Western North Carolina to have body cams. As a retired law enforcement officer, and as the mayor, I fully supported the town employing these body cameras but was appalled when the legislature stepped in and made it sound as though municipal officials could not be trusted to view the actions of the officers we employ.”

Scott added that he understands the position that such bpdy cam videos should not be open to just anyone from the public.

“That could get out of hand,” he wrote. “There does need to be a system to keep prurient or frivolous viewing out of the picture. I believe any municipality could come up with a policy to negate casual, frivolous viewing by someone with no interest in the situation but who is just plain nosy. Of course, defining nosy in such a policy would be interesting and challenging.  Sort of like defining pornography.”

According to Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, his department has sought the purchase of body cams, to no avail.

“We have never turned down any funding for video cameras,” said Holland. “We are a larger agency and therefore equipping my officers would take a great deal more funding than any of our local police departments. We have actually spent the last two years looking for outside sources to fund same. Last fall we began seeking assistance from members of our legislature for some assistance in obtaining funding that could be allocated specifically for in-car cameras as well as possibility of body cams.

But there is hope, according to Holland.

“Neither I or any of my officers have an issue with body-cams. I would love the opportunity to outfit all my officers. It simply comes down to paying for them. Soon that will not be an issue as we have heard funding is on its way thanks to some of our elected officials in Raleigh.”

Holland was unable to elaborate any further about the county’s purchase of body cameras for his officers. He did, however, state that it’s not only about quantity, but quality, for the department.

“This is a big investment. There are a lot of brands and I don’t want to waste tax dollars to purchase a large number of a product only to have it not work to our needs or to have the company bought out or close its doors. This is the problem we found with our current cameras which have slowly dwindled down to only a couple working. Now if our cameras go down the company can no longer get the parts to fix. Or worse, go out when it’s needed most then we have to try to explain why it didn’t work and if this happens he could create concerns by those questioning an incident. I do not want our agency to appear we have anything to hide at anytime. Right or wrong.”