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Birmingham adds body cams to police patrols

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 7, 2020


BIRMINGHAM — For years, the Birmingham Police Department has considered adding body cameras to officers on patrol in the city.

And as people around the country enter a second month of protests, demanding law enforcement agencies do more to prevent racial bias and unreasonably violent arrest tactics, the Birmingham Police Department decided now is the time to bring body cams on board.

Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence proposed purchasing the cameras to the City Commission during its meeting June 22. He asked for $60,463 from the city’s general fund to purchase 40 Vista High Definition body-worn camera systems that would complement — and share data storage with — the department’s existing in-car cameras. The systems would be used in tandem and, as a benefit, would ensure encounters are safe from technology errors by creating backup audio and visual records for each other.

“People are looking for transparency and accountability in police work, and I think this kind of answers that. I think it also gives officers a layer of protection that they have. They’re used to being on camera. Currently, we have the in-car video cameras,” Clemence said.

The chief explained that the Police Department has been eyeing body cameras since 2016, but there were concerns about policy issues and privacy.

“In 2018, the Law Enforcement Body-Worn Camera Privacy Act (took effect), and that addressed a lot of our concerns as far as privacy. We discussed how we’ll handle that in terms of a (Freedom of Information Act) coordinator who will be very careful how we react to FOIA requests and what information we let out as far as the Crime Victims’ Rights Act to make sure that, when we administer that properly, we don’t give out information we shouldn’t,” Clemence said.

Along with new legislation to protect the rights of citizens filmed during police activity, the decision to move forward with integrating cameras into the Police Department was furthered, Clemence said, by one of the city’s younger residents.

“Ms. (Kiran) Heeley is one of our 15-year-old citizens from Seaholm High School,” he said, explaining that the student reached out to the department for a dialogue on the benefits of using body cameras. “We talked about the cost factor, accountability and transparency. We talked at great length about body cameras, and I talked to her about my concerns and why it’s taken as long as it has to get where we are, and I listened to her and her version of why we should have them. Then after that, she, on her own, put together a petition, and I think she got over 1,000 signatures from community members to get body-worn cameras. I think as a police officer and someone who loves the law that she should be commended, she should be celebrated as a citizen. She’s gone above and beyond to try and move her point forward.”

Heeley told the commission during the meeting that her petition had, in fact, collected more than 1,600 signatures.

“I’ve seen widespread support from the citizens, and my classmates especially, so I’m grateful to see that this has been recognized before the City Commission,” she said. “I would like to thank the city manager, the commissioners and the police chief for taking the community’s concerns seriously.”

The commission approved the request for funds to purchase the cameras 7-0.

Moments later, the commission unanimously approved $14,700 to fund a bias awareness and sensitivity training course for Police Department staff and other city employees. The cost will facilitate workshops for “If You’re Human, You’re Biased,” a program of SASHE, LLC. The curriculum, according to the group’s president and founder, Jocelyn Giangrande, will explore how biases can lead to misconceptions of different situations through dialogue and exercises.