MADISON, Ala. - Wednesday, Chief David Jernigan says the Madison Police Department placed an order for new body-worn cameras.
Monday, the Madison City Council granted approval for the $65,490 purchase of 63 Focus X1 body cameras. Jernigan said the move will bring the department into the 21st century.
"We're one of the last agencies our size in North Alabama to obtain body cameras," said Jernigan.
Jernigan said the department currently uses an antiquated in-car system, and these body-worn cameras would replace them. He said the department has had the in-car camera system for around 10 years, and it often breaks down and needs continual maintenance. Plus, he said it takes up space in the car. Technology has advanced to a place where he believes they can do better.
"It's old technology. It's a typical in-car camera, which is mainly designed for traffic stops. It's somewhat finicky," Jernigan admitted, before stating that the dashcam systems don't capture what happens once an officer leaves the vehicle's area.
"We want to be relevant. We want to be out there with the state-of-the-art equipment," he said. "Certainly, the benefit is that we record an incident from start-to-finish. Sometimes, you don't get the whole story. I have a saying that I use that, no matter how flat the pancake, there's always two sides." He added, "We want to be able to tell the whole story. And I think also the cameras keep us honest."
Jernigan said eventually, the department will look at getting new in-car camera systems to replace what they're phasing out now. He wants to see any future in-car system be able to interact with the body camera technology.
In the meantime, he plans to phase-in the body cameras over time, with the goal of having them all operational by September 1. His plan is to equip school resource officers, then the traffic unit, before moving on to the rest of the force.
"We want to test and evaluate, see what works, get all the bugs worked out of it," he noted. "It's not something you get in, unbox, and turn on the next day. There's a little bit of a break-in period."
Now the department has cameras on the way, they will be working to develop a policy for the cameras and how they will be used.
Jernigan said they have model policies from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and other organizations, including the Department of Justice, to help guide them. The department will also look to the state for what it mandates, too.
He said they hadn't yet thought about what that policy would say about releasing video to media and the public.
"We haven't gotten that far yet," he said. "Certainly we are going to follow whatever the state mandates as far as records retention."
Madison has opted for a body camera that boasts good battery life for a full shift. Jernigan says the officers will need to manually turn on the cameras, but that's a part of training and getting the officers used to using them.
"Certainly, you want to make sure it's turned on until the incident is over," he said. "We need to capture the contact we have with the public. I think after they've had it for a long period of time, it will be second-nature."
The ACLU of Alabama told us the policy a department develops is very important to maintaining rights like privacy, while remaining transparent. Portia Allen-Kyle, Policy Director, wrote in a statement to WHNT News 19:
"Body cameras have great potential for use as an oversight tool, but they are only as effective as the policies that implement them. With the use of more advanced surveillance technology comes the responsibility of vigilance in striking the right balance between privacy and transparency. There should be clear rules governing which footage gets released to the public, as well as how footage is used by law enforcement. However, videos of great public interest, such as those capturing a police use of force, should be unconditionally released to the public. Strong policies will ensure that body cameras don't just become another tool to keep an eye on the public, but instead serve their intended function as an accountability mechanism available to communities to help foster trust with their local police."
Jernigan said he was principally responsible for rolling out body cameras as the Madison County Sheriff's Office when he worked there as Chief Deputy. He said he has seen how this equipment can make a department function better.
"I saw complaints go down tremendously. I'm not going to say they went down to zero," he said, "but when you know you're being watched... I think you police at a much higher professional level."
Of the body cameras, Jernigan said it's a solid decision.
"I think it's a no-brainer," he stated. "I think the public demands it. I think in order for us to maintain transparency and accountability, two words I like to use, this will allow the public to look at us and know we're progressive."