Fairfax County Police roll out body camera pilot program

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Virginia—Fairfax County police will begin wearing body cameras as a part of a pilot program being rolled out in three district stations.

Officers at Mount Vernon, Reston and Mason district stations will wear the 230 cameras deployed for the six-month program. According to Fairfax County Police Department officials, the introduction of the body-worn camera pilot program will promote transparency.

“They...help us with accountability of our actions in the community and build confidence and trust from the community in our police department,” said FCPD Chief Colonel Edwin Roessler at a press conference announcing the pilot program.

The body-worn camera program is being rolled out more than a year after a recommendation by the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission to implement police-worn technologies.

The commission was created to investigate FCPD’s policies after an officer shot and killed an unarmed Springfield resident in 2013 during a domestic abuse incident at his home. In 2016, the review commission had 68 recommendations for FCPD on use of force.

The three districts piloting the program were chosen based on their diversity. In 2016, there were 359,213 immigrants in Fairfax County, making up 30.5% of the total population.

“These three stations provide unique opportunities to understand the impact of body worn cameras,” said Roessler. “Each of these district stations contain very diverse communities, diverse urban environments.”

The FCPD hopes this program will give insight into whether or not body-worn cameras will have an impact on the use of force and the number of complaints about police officers.

Footage captured by body-worn cameras and in-car videos could also be beneficial in highly politicized or critical incidents involving police. For example, a U.S. Park Police officer shot an unarmed man after a chase on the George Washington Parkway in November 2017. Following the incident, Chief Roessler opted for releasing the dashcam footage.

While the case undergoes investigation by the FBI, the family of the man who was shot said in a statement that they were grateful to Roessler “for all he has done to ensure the appropriate amount of transparency throughout this process.”

Although body-worn cameras may improve the relationship between police and the community, some argue that implementing the cameras will do little to affect or improve police behavior and will instead impugn on a citizen’s right to privacy.

According to a statement by the FCPD, citizens have “no expectation of privacy in public areas” as there is no law prohibiting officers from recording individuals in public.

In most cases, officers are expected to turn on the cameras during any encounter with a member of the public, including during a traffic stop, subject stop, search or police service and are required to keep recording for the duration of the incident.

In some cases, however, if a citizen wants to report something but remain anonymous, the camera may be turned off.

Since 2016, the FCPD has worked with members of minority communities and stakeholders in Fairfax County to implement robust policies for body camera-wearing officers.

“In theory, it would be a great idea and create accountability, but I don’t think that it’s going to be something that engenders trust because I think the issues minority communities face are bigger than body cameras,” said Maha Elsamahi, a Fairfax County resident of Arab American descent. “There’s an overall lack of trust that stems from unwarranted surveillance and a lack of cultural competency.”

A 2016 FCPD report also showed that African Americans were involved in 39% of use of force incidents. A total of 500 use of force incidents were reported that year, with 917 officers involved, 750 of which were white.

“Policing is a dynamic and often dangerous profession where decisions made by the professional may be difficult for a lay person to understand without context or situational awareness,” said Barbara Hamill, a former FBI analyst and Fairfax County resident. “I support their use, but we also have to be careful and critical when we, law enforcement and public, attempt to evaluate the information provided by the camera.”

In 2016, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the creation of the Office of Independent Police Auditor to review police use of force investigations.

Data from the pilot program will be collected by researchers at the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University. They will evaluate the impact of body-worn cameras based on use of force statistics and community complaints, among others.

“To make a more informed decision, [we need] to understand the impact of body worn cameras from many different perspectives,” said Roessler. “Body-worn cameras only provide one point of view, they do not solve everything.”

Rawan Elbaba