WDBJ7 In-Depth: Body cameras create additional workload, cost for localities

Published: Nov. 20, 2019 at 4:17 PM EST
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In a court of law, attorneys have to prove whether a person might be guilty or innocent.

In recent years their arguments have been elevated by a compelling new form of evidence: video footage from the body cameras worn by law enforcement.

"It's been a game changer," said Aaron Boone, chief deputy public defender for the Lynchburg Public Defender's Office.

Calling body cameras a "silent witness," Boone said the devices can sometimes provide more answers than human testimony.

"If there's any debate about what happened on scene, the video definitively resolves it," Boone said of the body camera footage.

"Our job here is to do justice. To seek the truth," explained Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney, Bethany Harrison, who calls body-worn camera equipment a "benefit."

"That video footage, on the whole, has been very helpful to our cases," Harrison said. "The judge or the jury, the fact finder, can really experience for him or herself what is really going on in a situation."

While the footage has given prosecutors and defenders a new tool to help fight their cases, introduction of the new evidence has dramatically increased their workload.

"A conservative estimate is that it has actually tripled our workload per case," remarked Boone, who said attorneys in his office sometimes have to work additional night and weekend hours to watch all of the body camera evidence.

"The time expenditure is huge, because you have to watch a significant portion if not all of the particular video," said Boone, adding there might be more than 12 hours of footage available for some cases.

"Just speaking for me, to give you an example, I had one case where I had to review 16 hours of body camera footage," Boone said.

Since the footage is coming from law enforcement, prosecutors bare the responsibility of processing the video as evidence of the state.

"Every time that body camera turns on, you're creating evidence," said Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney, Wes Nance. "You may have hours upon hours of videotape to explore, so to do this job right you not only have to obtain that evidence but review it ahead of time before going to court."

Lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly saw the workload increasing and took action. Earlier this year they passed legislation, requiring localities to hire one new prosecutor for every 75 body cameras the city or county has in use, or come up with a formula that distributes the workload among existing prosecutors.

While the state is requiring localities to add additional staff, they aren't providing money to fund the new positions. City councils and boards of supervisors are having to carve money out of their existing budgets to pay for the new positions.

In June the Bedford County the board of supervisors allocated more than $81,000 to cover the salary and benefits of a new associate commonwealth's attorney.

Gerald Urbanek was sworn in last month as Bedford County's first prosecutor dedicated to body camera footage. He gathers videos from law enforcement, reviews the evidence and makes copies for defense attorneys.

"It helps streamline the process, reduce the workload for other people in the office, and make sure that everything is happening that needs to happen," said Urbanek.

In Lynchburg, the introduction of body cameras led the commonwealth's attorney to create two additional positions. The office has a full-time assistant and a full-time prosecutor dedicated to law enforcement video footage.

Harrison said both have a full workload.

"Our body-worn camera assistant finds it very difficult to even take vacation, because of the amount of work that he has," explained Harrison, who said she's looking to cross-train others in her office to take on some of the responsibilities.

"The work is always there," Harrison said. "When you increase services, you increase workload and you need the manpower to address it."

A work group composed of commonwealth's attorneys and other state leaders continues to look at the impact body worn cameras are having on the court system, including the effect on public defenders like Boone.

"We want to provide the best services for our clients that we can," said Boone. "In order to do that, we need better staffing and we need better compensation for my staff and my lawyers."

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