NOPD’s newest accessory to provide ‘unbiased, unvarnished record of exactly what happened’
Digital eyes soon will be watching when New Orleans cops chase armed robbers, frisk suspicious pedestrians or disperse boisterous crowds, as the department rolls out hundreds of “body-worn cameras” that will record officer interactions with the public.
Superintendent Ronal Serpas touted the technology Wednesday as “the next step in American policing to ensure transparency and accountability,” saying the devices would remove the “he said, she said” from everyday police work.
“It’s an unbiased, unvarnished record of exactly what happened,” Serpas said at a news conference. “It will help us explain to people the actions that officers took, and, sometimes, it will help us if we have to make a determination to dismiss an officer.”
The cameras are intended to serve as an independent monitor for a department seeking to bolster its image and turn the page after a series of high-profile misconduct allegations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Officers also are dealing with wide-ranging changes in the department ushered in by a consent decree that Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed with the federal government.
That agreement required that cameras be installed in all NOPD patrol cars but did not mandate body-worn devices. Serpas said the officer cameras, which have become increasingly common around the country, were purchased “in consideration of best practices” and with the approval of the consent decree monitor and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We will use the body camera in every event we have with a citizen that is business-related: a traffic stop, writing a police report, doing a felony stop, doing a ‘Terry stop,’ answering questions about directions,” Serpas said. “If it’s a business-related activity, the officers will place the (camera) in the record mode, and the record system allows the prior 30 seconds to be captured once they turn the device on.”
Serpas said the department hopes to complete the necessary training within a few weeks so the cameras can be issued to officers in the Field Operations Bureau.
Landrieu has signed a five-year contract with Taser International, worth about $290,000 a year, which covers 420 cameras, replacements to broken devices and digital storage of videos at Evidence.com.
Under the deal, the department gets 320 AXON body cameras — small black boxes, roughly the size of a deck of cards, that officers will wear on the front of their shirts. The department also receives 100 AXON Flex cameras, a sleeker model that is attached to an officer’s eyewear, cap, lapel or helmet and tethered to a recording device worn on the hip.
The contract also includes the replacement of the entire fleet of cameras after three years, Serpas said. “These are city funds,” he stressed. “These purchases do not come from any federal money.”
Under department policy, Serpas said, officers are required to activate the cameras when they’re involved in any “business-related event” with anyone. “If you are engaged in a conversation of any sort with a citizen or visitor of New Orleans, you will be required to put the body camera on,” he said.
Raymond Burkart III, an attorney for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said he hopes the requirement to turn on the cameras is not “enforced in a draconian manner,” particularly in cases when officers and citizens are in danger. He also questioned the department’s priorities in acquiring the technology, saying officers still have not received some training required under the consent decree.
“We will use the body camera in every event we have with a citizen that is business-related: a traffic stop, writing a police report, doing a felony stop, doing a ‘Terry stop,’ answering questions about directions.” RONAL SERPAS, superintendent
“Certainly, we’re trying to tell the officers to make it motor-muscle memory,” he said. “But we may not always get everything we think we should, because obviously human life is going to be a bigger priority than a camera.” The footage, he added, “should in no way, shape or form, regardless of what is captured or not captured, be the only evidence used for or against the public or an officer.”
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, welcomed the new technology as a boon to officer and citizen protection, a record of events to confirm or debunk misconduct claims. But from a privacy perspective, she said, the department should discard unneeded footage as quickly as possible.
“What you want is for as much public access to information about law enforcement and what they’re doing as possible,” Esman said. “But if it turns out there’s no arrest made or there’s no altercation, then there’s no reason to keep that footage.”
Officer Frank Robertson, an NOPD spokesman, said the department plans to keep video that is not needed for a case for three years.