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The Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department began wearing brand new body cameras this winter. The old cameras only had a two-hour battery life and didn’t record well in low-light situations. When then-Sheriff Al Kisner found that the new body cameras would cost the department about $40,000, he turned to the community.
“We went to our county commission. They agreed to pay up to $20,000 of the purchase price and then we would pay the other half,” he said. “Miraculously what happened was we had a couple of individual groups that stepped up.”
One of those groups was the Morgantown chapter of the Hogs & Heroes Foundation, a national group for motorcyclists that supports soldiers, veterans and first responders. They teamed up with an amateur radio club to raise about $11,000 last year for the body cameras. Lawrence “Big Sarge” Taylor, the president of the Morgantown chapter of Hogs & Heroes, said he initially read about the Sheriff’s Department’s need for body cameras in the local newspaper early last year. The group decided to commit last year’s fundraising efforts to supporting the purchase of the body cameras.
“Our biggest fundraiser is what we call a helmet drive. You’ve probably seen fire departments hold boot drives, where they hold a boot out as you drive at and hopefully you donate. We hold helmets out,” Taylor said.
The Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department isn’t the only police department to purchase body cameras – the Martinsburg Police Department in Berkeley County started wearing body cameras in February.
Investing in Body Cameras ‘Preactical’
Valena Beety, a law professor who focuses on criminal procedure at the West Virginia University College of Law, said that investment in body cameras is a practical one for police departments, especially when civilians can video record their own encounters with police. She pointed out that body camera usage can also improve the relationship between police officers and the communities they serve. For example, the Charleston Police Department consulted with the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia before finalizing their body camera policy last year.
“I know in Charleston and here in Morgantown, the departments are being proactive about how can we form a trusting relationship with the community as opposed to an antagonistic one where the community fears us,” she said.
The Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department has been scrutinized for its body camera policies before. Three officer-involved shootings occurred in 2015 and 2016, resulting in the deaths of three civilians. In all three cases, none of the deputies involved were wearing the old body cameras.
“At that time of those incidents, the deputies weren’t wearing those cameras anymore because they were inadequate,” Kisner said.
Body Camera Footage and the Law
West Virginia does not have any statute pertaining specifically to body camera usage, meaning that police departments can set their own policies. The Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department’s policy is that all road deputies – meaning officers who respond to calls for service – must wear them and activate them when interacting with civilians. The footage is archived for two years and can be requested by attorneys, but isn’t available directly to the public.
The cameras are in standby mode when the deputy isn’t interacting with a civilian, since much of an officer’s time is spent driving or filing paperwork. But even in standby mode, the cameras are recording and temporarily saving footage. According to Sergeant Andy Pintus at the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department, some deputies expressed hesitation about being under constant surveillance while on duty.
“I tell guys, ‘Do you do anything wrong? Are you doing something you’re not supposed to do?’ And they say, ‘Well, no, I’m not doing anything wrong,'” Pintus said. “I said, ‘Then what are you worried about?’ As long as you’re not doing anything wrong, and you’re following our guidelines and you’re professional and you’re respectful, you’ve got nothing to worried about.”
Wes Metheny, an attorney in Morgantown, donated about $900 to the cause – enough to pay for one body camera. He also pledged to buy another one for every five body cameras other lawyers purchased, though no one took him up on his offer. As a personal injury lawyer, he says video evidence has played a crucial role in many of his cases.
“In fact, I’ve seen cases in Morgantown where people have been cleared because of video evidence, and where they’ve been convicted because of video evidence,” he said.
In other words, body cameras help protect both police officers and the community.