Metro Atlanta school police officers’ newest equipment: body cameras

Chris Lindenau, chief revenue officer of the Decatur-based company Utility Associates, Inc., holds a Motorola phone they have adapted to work with the company’s body-worn cameras system at their headquarters in Decatur Thursday, April 4, 2019. Atlanta Public Schools police officers began using the devices in March. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

By Vanessa McCray, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When Atlanta Public Schools police officer Meredith Littles reports for duty at Inman Middle School, she sports a new, high-tech tool snapped securely inside her dark uniform.

A smart phone-connected camera lens peeks out from a large button-size hole in the front of her shirt. She taps a gadget strapped to her wrist and an electronic voice announces the device is recording.

Police officers who walk school hallways now wear body cameras in seven of Georgia’s 10 largest districts, including Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb, which began using them in recent months. Yet, the devices are controversial. Supporters say the cameras enhance public trust and provide valuable evidence in criminal cases, while detractors denounce them as a threat to student privacy and fear they’ll make students less likely to confide in officers.

Many state and city police agencies moved quickly to adopt body cameras after high-profile police shootings around the nation, and school police are joining that trend.

North Atlanta High School senior and student president Clarke Peoples, 18, says body cameras can be beneficial for students and officers. The video could resolve discrepancies between a student’s and an officer’s accounts of an incident, she said.

Also, “Students know a camera is here, let me make sure that I simmer down,” she said. “Students wouldn’t do things in front of an administrator or … a camera.”

About 70 APS officers began wearing the devices last month, as did some DeKalb school officers in a smaller trial run. Fulton County Schools equipped police with cameras at the start of this school year.

They also appeared in recent months in Henry and Forsyth schools, where county sheriff’s offices provide school officers. Cobb and Gwinnett, the state’s two biggest districts with nearly 300,000 students combined, have used them for several years.

Fulton’s body-worn cameras have not revealed any instances of officer misconduct, Fulton County Schools police Captain Darrell McDaniel said. In Cobb and Gwinnett, where school police have used the devices longer, officials also reported no misconduct caught on video.

“A big part of this is increasing transparency and accountability,” said DeKalb County School District police Chief Bradley Gober.

“Body cameras minimize complaints about officers’ behavior, and it is also used as an accurate witness on the scene.”

So far, there have been few high-profile, controversial cases nationally involving footage from school officers’ body cameras. Oregon officials said body camera footage showed that a school officer was legally justified when he fatally shot an armed man at a middle school in January.

Cameras and school officers

Officers in schools take a different approach than those patrolling the larger community. School officers focus on preventing problems and building relationships with students, urging them to report dangers such a weapon, said school safety expert Ken Trump, president of the Ohio-based consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services.

He worries body cameras “could be a deterrent or at least another obstacle” to building the connection between officers and students.

Christine Austin, a Fulton County parent of an elementary school student, thinks districts should invest in counselors and social workers, not more police — but if police are working in schools, they should be wearing body cameras. She served on a Fulton safety committee after last year’s Parkland, Fla., school shooting. The district hired an additional 16 police officers this year to patrol schools.

Students “shouldn’t feel like they are living in a police state,” Austin said.

“As long as we are taking steps to protect the privacy by not making that footage available to the public without some sort of discretion … If we’re going to have more officers, it does give us some more accountability.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also doesn’t want police in schools. Kosha Tucker, staff attorney for ACLU of Georgia, says officers should not be doing things that might be cited to justify wearing cameras, such as using physical force against a student.

“Police officers that are stationed in schools should never wear body cameras,” said Tucker, who previously worked as a public defender in DeKalb County.

And she thinks the cameras “infringe on students’ privacy rights,” and create a state of surveillance by recording students without justification or a warrant.

“This is a school not a prison,” Tucker said.

Critics fear footage could be used to enforce minor school rules.

Who can see the video

Georgia law exempts much body-camera video from public release, but there are exceptions. Videos taken by Atlanta school police, for example, may be viewed through a valid open-records request or subpoena. APS police Chief Ronald Applin said video can be edited to obscure students’ identity in some cases, though when used as evidence in court the footage would remain unaltered.

Who gets to see police footage depends on the situation, he said. In the past, when parents have disputed an officer’s account of an incident involving their child, Applin has invited the parent to watch a recording.

“We typically wouldn’t show them the video, but in a couple of cases I did,” he said. “Let them see exactly what their kid did, and that changes everything.”

Captain McDaniel in Fulton said the district would rarely release recordings publicly without blurring students’ faces.

At least one metro school safety leader would like more direction from the Legislature about about “potential” violations of student privacy law.

“I am of the belief that the state should provide legislative guidance … regarding the usage of body cameras in the K-12 environment to provide consistency through Georgia,” said Thomas Trawick, Clayton County Schools’ safety chief, in a written statement.

Clayton school police officers wore cameras as recently as late 2015, but since discontinued their use, and the district says it has no plans to buy or use them. Clayton cited concerns about the cost and capacity of storing videos and how to protect the chain of custody for recordings stored on remote, cloud-based servers.

A Clayton school district spokesman declined a request to interview the chief.

How cameras are used

APS’ body-worn devices and data storage cost about $125,000, according to the district; a federal grant paid for all but about $35,000. The Fulton school system spent just over $30,000 for 75 cameras and backup batteries. The DeKalb district has spent $47,500 on its pilot program, including a dozen cameras and data storage.

Decatur-based Utility Associates, Inc. has provided body-worn cameras for about three years. About 14,000 of its devices are being used by law enforcement agencies across the country, including Atlanta and Cobb school police departments.

“I do think now we’re starting to see now that chasm being crossed where (school resource officers) and students and teachers and parents want that accountability. They want what can be captured in a video, which is worth a thousand words,” said Chris Lindenau, the company’s chief revenue officer.

During a routine day, cameras worn by DeKalb school police aren’t recording. The officer activates the camera when responding to an incident, Gober said.

DeKalb County School District school resource officer Johnny Burnette talks with a student about a 360-degree body camera he wears as part of a pilot program at Clarkston High School.

Atlanta’s cameras continually capture video without storing it. Officers are expected to hit “record” whenever they deem it appropriate — during, say, adversarial encounters, when serving a search or arrest warrant or after observing suspicious or criminal behavior. Dealing with an unruly student, a fight or a shooting are reasons to record.

Once an APS officer hits “record,” the previous 30 seconds of video is preserved, though without audio, Applin said. That extra time provides additional context about what was happening before the officer began recording.

The devices also can be programmed to start recording automatically in specific situations or when officers enter a certain geographic area.

On Officer Littles’ beat, at the big brick Atlanta middle school not far from Piedmont Park, she said her new camera has gone largely unnoticed by Inman students, whose young lives revolve around technology.

“They’re not even really remotely curious about the device. They’re like: ‘You got a camera, I got a camera.’ If something happens, I mean everybody is making a video,” she said. “I think we were just evening the playing field because everybody else around us had a camera.”

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution