After two years, police body cams receive high marks in Roanoke

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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) Roanoke Patrol Officer N.D. Comas has been using a body camera for the last two years.

"It's a normal part of our routine now," Comas told WDBJ7, "as far as just getting on duty, getting our necessary equipment for patrol or for shift, so it's just at this point become very routine."

He says the cameras provide transparency and accountability for police officers and the people with whom they interact. He says they provide valuable training opportunities, and provide another tool to help solve crimes.

He describes an occasion when he encountered a suspect who was breaking into cars at night.

"So in that instance we were able to take a still picture of the individual that I was currently dealing with," Comas said. "We sent out a picture across our police department email. Another officer who had dealt with that individual in the past identified him and we were able to apprehend that suspect, and return the stolen items."

The cameras are also making a difference in the prosecution of cases.

Commonwealth's Attorney Don Caldwell says body camera footage is rarely used in the courtroom, but it has proven particularly helpful in DUI cases.

Don Caldwell/Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney: Now you have the body cam which allows you to get up close to the person and interact. you can hear them so really I can't say enough good about the body camera.

It is also valuable, Caldwell says, after an officer-involved shooting, allegations of police brutality or a death in police custody.

"The main thing for me is that it's about equity," said Roanoke NAACP President Brenda Hale. "It's about social justice, and it's about fairness, and ultimately the truth."

Hale advocated for body cameras and says her opinion hasn't changed.

"I think this was a great initiative for the Roanoke City Police Department to take and it's a two-way street," Hale said. "Not only does it protect the citizens of our city, but it also protects the police officers that go about doing their job."

Body cameras don't come cheap. The city has invested three quarters of a million dollars in equipment and personnel.

And Police Chief Tim Jones talks about "unintended consequences," starting with the sheer volume of material the cameras collect.

"If you can imagine a thousand Hollywood movies worth of storage," Jones told us. "That is what our data center for body cameras has grown to now. And that's a lot of terabytes of data."

Then there's the fire that caused $600,000 worth of damage after a battery charger exploded.

And the concern that the use of cameras can devalue an officer's testimony if there's no footage to bolster his case.

Despite all of that, Chief Jones says he remains committed to the concept, and believes body cameras are here to stay.

"It's positive for the agency," Jones said. "It's positive for the community. and I think it's positive for the officers who are out there now in today's environment under a lot of criticism and critique over what they do daily in their tasks."

While the department has been using the body cameras, the technology has been changing.

In fact, the manufacturer the city went with two years ago, has been acquired by another company.

The department is now gathering information and looking toward the next generation of body cameras that Roanoke police officers will wear on the job.