As national conversations continue about law agencies using body cameras to document their interactions with the public, Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies now wear body cameras as part of their regular duties.

Sheriff Van Duncan said his office has been looking into increasing its use of cameras for several years, and it already had car-mounted cameras for its highway drug-interdiction unit. “But those are limited in scope,” he said.

“About a year ago, we began to talk about more body-worn cameras,” Duncan said.

There were challenges, he said, with balancing citizens’ privacy with the need for transparency and working out how the videos would be managed and stored.

Duncan told Carolina Public Press that his staff, particularly Lt. Roney Hilliard, who heads the BCSO’s internal affairs office, worked from guidelines and information provided by the North Carolina School of Government to craft its policy.

The department began testing and evaluating the use of cameras in March as it finished drafting its policy, eventually rolling them out in June. Seventy patrol deputies now wear the cameras, as do 20 officers in the county jail. In the latter case, the cameras are intended to make sure there’s video of any encounters that take place outside the watch of the jail’s video system.

According to the policy, there are several reasons the office is using body cameras. The devices:

• “allow for accurate documentation of police-public contacts, arrests and critical incidents”;

• “enhance the department’s ability to review probable cause for arrest, deputy and suspect interaction, and evidence for investigative and prosecutorial purposes and to provide additional information for deputy evaluation and training”;

• and “may also be useful in documenting crime and other events.”

Under the policy, deputies are required to “make every reasonable effort” to turn on their cameras before interacting with the public in several circumstances, including traffic stops, “self-initiated activities,” any “enforcement activity” where they believe someone has broken the law, any contacts that “become adversarial” and “any other investigative or enforcement encounter.” The officer is then required to keep the camera on until the encounter is finished and turn the video over at the end of their shift.

MORE: Duncan: Buncombe Sheriff’s Office has 70 body cameras, procedures for keeping, erasing footage

“The point is to record the interaction,” Duncan said. “Get out of the car, turn it on. When the interaction is done, turn it off.”

Duncan said that if an encounter happens where a deputy is supposed to have their camera on and doesn’t, they’re required to document that in the incident report, adding that his office will want to know the reason and will investigate. Officers are also forbidden from altering or distributing the video in any way.

“If a deputy is formally accused of wrongdoing, using excessive force leading to serious injury, or an officer-involved shooting,” the policy adds, “the Sheriff or his designee reserves the right to limit or restrict a deputy from viewing video files.”

Duncan also said that the BCSO was careful to choose a camera and system — the Vievu — that gave them the office control over the recorded data, and he emphasized that permission to delete the videos is confined solely to internal affairs.

The videos are automatically deleted after 30 days if they document just a routine stop or if no charges or complaints arose from a given encounter.

Asked if he faced any reluctance or opposition to body cameras from deputies, Duncan said that there was some, but that “most of the concerns were simply around this being a piece of new technology” rather than a reluctance to being recorded.

“Anybody who interacts with a member of the public expects to be recorded,” Duncan said, adding that there were more concerns about remembering to turn cameras on and off, “adding another task to their workday.”

Duncan said the office has already seen a “significant reduction in complaints” since the body camera initiative started and that other local agencies have asked to see Buncombe’s policy as they prepare their own.

He added that the agency may institute a body camera program for its school resource officers, as well.

The Asheville Police Department is also crafting a policy on the use of body cameras, but it hasn’t been implemented yet.

“We are currently working to research best practices and policies in regards to the use of body cameras,” spokesperson Christina Hallingse wrote in an email to CPP.

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David Forbes

David Forbes is a former contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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