In February the Fairfax County Police Department began testing a pilot program for body cameras by equipping 230 officers with them at the Mason, Mount Vernon and Reston district police stations to be used on everything from emergency situations to routine traffic stops. However, don’t expect the City of Falls Church Police to follow suit.
Implementing any kind of a body cam program in the City doesn’t fit the same need as it does for Fairfax County Police, according to City of Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin. The City’s roughly 15,000 residents is a fraction of one percent of Fairfax County’s 1.142 million inhabitants and is in a far more condensed area compared to the county’s. Additionally, Falls Church residents are generally affluent and not prone to violent crimes — per neighborhoodscout.com, the City experiences 1.93 violent crimes per 1,000 residents. That’s below Virginia’s average (2.18) and the national median (4). A low propensity for violence allows City police to effectively enforce the law without requiring the extra levels of transparency that typically spur calls for body cams.
Even with that reality, surveillance equipment is a growing need for all modern police departments and the City’s employs its own through a camera system built-in to each patrol vehicle.
“We’ve researched [body cams], but we feel the in-car camera system meets our current needs,” Gavin said. “In-car cameras have served officers well when taking in surrounding areas during specific situations.”
In-car cameras are activated whenever there is a “hot call,” or a chance that force may be used by a police officer or a citizen at-large. From inside the car, the officers can position the cameras to focus on areas of attention and provide recorded data for later review. These cameras have proved useful for City Police during hot calls over the years, such as a robbery at SunTrust Bank and a shooting incident at the State Theatre in Jan. 2016.
Hot calls are also situations when officers and nearby citizens are at risk, making safety paramount. Gavin believes that body cams can make officers too worried about violating policy rather than acting in the best interest of their safety as well as the safety of fellow citizens, so she hesitates to commit to their use on her own volition.
Along with that, Gavin also feels that body cams can be seen as intrusive to victims.
Gavin referenced a hypothetical domestic violence incident where a victim may be less willing to divulge details of the altercation when they know they are being recorded on camera. The same goes for witnesses, she says who may also become less cooperative once they notice the body cam.
Gavin continued by stating that any footage from body cams are subject to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and can become publicly distributable from that point on. In the hypothetical domestic violence case, the presence of video would not only be used in court but also in news programs and reporting as well. It runs the risk of putting out sensitive information regarding the identities of both witnesses and victims and re-traumatizing the person involved during one of their most distressful moments.
Instead, Gavin believes the body microphones that all officers are outfitted with serve the need better. The mics capture the voices and words of witnesses with clarity while protecting their physical identity. Furthermore, they can be used as effectively in court to try cases and land convictions. Gavin added that when complaints of force are fielded and investigated by City police, witnesses and persons involved who are interviewed are less likely to follow through with questioning when they are told they might be recorded on video.
However, it’d be wrong to assume that Gavin is completely opposed to body cams, despite the financial hill to climb in acquiring them.
“I’m not opposed to body cams, but I don’t see a need,” Gavin continued. “If the community is demanding body cams, it would definitely be considered. But I’m not sure if the community is intent on the department using body cams at this time.”