Some Charlotte police to get body cameras

Police officers receive instruction about their body cameras during a training class Tuesday in Charlotte.
Police officers receive instruction about their body cameras during a training class Tuesday in Charlotte. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

In the wake of highly publicized shootings that have focused attention on police, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department on Wednesday will deploy officers wearing body cameras to record interactions with the public.

About 85 patrol officers in the Metro Division north of downtown Charlotte will wear the lipstick-sized cameras, said Maj. Steve Willis, adding that officers in the Providence Division will begin wearing them later this week.

By October, some 1,400 CMPD officers will wear the body cameras, said Willis, costing Charlotte about $7 million. The rollout follows a pilot program in late 2013.

The cameras, turned on via a button on a small battery pack, will record everything from traffic stops and arrests to disturbances and uses of force.

They also will automatically turn on when an officer activates a patrol car’s blue lights.

Willis said recordings of misdemeanor crimes will be saved for three years. Recordings of felonies will be saved for 20 years.

“It’s going to give us the opportunity to hold our employees and our citizens accountable in a way that we’ve never been able to do before,” he said.

But exactly who will be able to see the video remains unclear.

An N.C. House bill, sponsored by Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican, would let the police decide when to release the recordings. That bill recently passed the House 115-2. It still has to pass in the Senate.

Willis said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police would abide by state and federal laws, but he acknowledged that preventing the public from viewing the footage could create even more distrust.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion around that,” he said.

The cameras come at a time of growing tension between the public and police. The deaths of African-American men in Missouri, New York, South Carolina and Maryland have sparked protests and calls for reform.

Locally, the deaths of two African-Americans at the hands of CMPD officers have provoked controversy.

Jonathan Ferrell, 24, a former Florida A&M football player who moved to Charlotte to be with his fiancee, was shot and killed in September 2013. Ferrell had wrecked his car and was mistaken for a burglar.

Janisha Fonville was shot in February after officers were called to a domestic dispute. Police said Fonville, 20, lunged at the officer with a knife, although a witness disputes that claim.

Randall Kerrick, the officer who shot Ferrell, was charged with voluntary manslaughter. Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray ruled that Officer Anthony Holzhauer was justified when he shot Fonville.

Willis said he hoped the cameras help build trust with the community.

“There will be challenges for us moving forward,” said Willis, adding that he hoped to make the cameras’ recording “as transparent as we can.”

The Associated Press contributed.