Following a national trend, the Harrisonburg and JMU police forces are equipping themselves with the ability to record, save and rewatch every interaction they have with civilians. Within the past year the two police departments have developed policies that put body cameras onto active officers. 

The Harrisonburg Police Department has had a policy implemented since April 2015, requiring officers all on-duty officers wear body cameras at all times, unless undercover, according to Lt. Rod Pollard, chief commander of the patrol division.  

JMU’s campus police force is implementing a permanent policy that they’ve been drafting since March of this year. As of now, the HPD doesn’t own enough cameras to outfit its entire force, it currently has 40 to 50. But the JMU Police Department is planning on providing cameras to all its officers within the next few weeks according to Lee Shifflett, the chief of police for JMU.  

“We have been writing our policy for eight weeks now,” Shifflet said. “It is not something you can just sit down and bang out in a day. Even when the model policy came down we had probably 90 percent of what the model policy suggested in our policy. It is the other 10 percent we looked at and said, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea; let’s add this, let’s tweak this.’”

Police body camera technology is something that’s spreading across the nation, according to Pollard. 

“If you look over the past several decades, you see technology changing the way we do business in law enforcement that in time went from absolutely no cameras, to in-car cameras,” Pollard said. “With the increase in technology and the ability to make cameras smaller and hold more memory, it’s just a transition of going from in-car cameras to body cameras.”

The HPD uses the Taser Axon camera, which comes in at a price tag of $400 per camera according to Taser’s website. The JMU police force furnishes its officers with the Digital Ally body camera, a camera that costs $1,040 per unit according to Grainger Industries, an online retailer. 

Pollard said that HPD’s cameras are very similar to the way the cameras in police vehicles work. The camera, whether in the car or on the officer, is always recording but doesn’t save any memory to its storage bank. In a police vehicle, as soon as the blue lights on top of the car flash on, the device starts actively saving its memory. For body cameras, the officer hits a button to make the camera start recording and saving video when they’re having an encounter with a citizen, according to Pollard. 

Body camera footage that’s in use during an investigation is not viewable to the public. In order to view any footage, whether from JMU police or HPD, an individual must submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the police department.

Shifflett is not worried about people seeing the cameras as an infringement of privacy. Shifflett sees videotaping by police officers as a form of note taking. So when they’re called into an encounter, it would work in the officer’s and the citizen’s favor to have notes of what happens. According to Shifflett, that’s only if an officer had legal standing to be there. Other problems arise concerning officers having manual control of when their cameras are on and actively saving video. 

An Economist/YouGov poll from earlier this year found that 88 percent of Americans support the use of body cameras. James Harkins, a senior philosophy major, thinks the cameras can only do good, as they can provide more evidence for potential court cases. 

“I don’t think it infringes upon my privacy,” Harkins said. “If I’m being confronted by the police, there’s either a good reason or there isn’t. If there is a good reason, then it’s best for me to politely present my case on camera. If there isn’t a good reason, then hopefully that gets across in the video. Either way, I think the camera could only help me.”

According to Shifflett, the JMU Police Department hasn’t had any complaints about harassment or poor treatment by police toward citizens in the last year. Still, Shifflett hopes that the body cameras will reinforce good habits by police. Coming from an administrative viewpoint, Shifflett sees these as powerful training tools, and to him it just makes sense to have them.   

“Say you see an officer who handles himself or herself in a situation, just textbook perfect,” Shifflett said. “Why not show it at the next roll call meet? Say, ‘Look people, we do this everyday.’”

Contact Chris Kent at kent2cm@dukes.jmu.edu.