Police officers and deputies can benefit from transparency and public confidence in local law enforcement, but when some efforts to maintain open operations instead endanger officers, agency leaders say they must make tough decisions.
In observance of Sunshine Week, an annual weeklong initiative coordinated to raise awareness about open government and public access to information, Lumina News talked to local agencies about how goals of transparency and officer protection overlap in some measures, like body-worn cameras and encrypted radio transmissions.
Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said he strives for transparency by providing information to the media whenever possible and creating opportunities for the public to ask questions and express concerns during quarterly Chat-with-the-Chief events.
“I believe in being open. I believe in being honest, as far as what we’re doing. I think it’s important, and if you talk to our public, our public has a lot of confidence in our agency. I think it’s because of those things,” House said.
New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon also said he aims to keep operations as open as possible to build trust in the community and hold the agency accountable. A gradual effort to outfit all patrol deputies with body-worn cameras is one way the sheriff’s office plans to ensure transparency, McMahon said.
“It’s going to be a way we can open ourselves up and hold ourselves accountable. There are no secrets. When we’re on official business, when we’re on a call, we’ve got a camera on. Everybody sees it,” McMahon said.
After about six months of research and planning, the first round of deputies will soon begin adding a small camera, affixed at the upper torso, to their daily uniform.
Deputies can benefit from wearing the cameras, McMahon said, which encourage both officers and civilians to be on their best behavior. Footage captured by the camera can also help establish officer compliance when complaints are filed, said sheriff’s office spokesperson Lt. J. Brewer.
“Without a camera, it’s my word against yours. The camera puts you there: audio, video, the whole bit. So it’s really going to help,” Brewer said. “All of our officers are trying to do the best they can and they deal with terrible situations frequently. So to give them this tool that will aid them, that will help them, is just common sense.”
The Wilmington Police Department has outfitted officers who work on foot and frequently engage with the public for about a year. Body cameras have been a part of every Wrightsville Beach police officer’s uniform since 2012. House said the early adoption was spurred by an uptick in public complaints after officers on beach patrol stepped up enforcement of town ordinances on the strand.
“We weren’t trying to pioneer anything,” House said. “… Since it was a huge change from what the average beachgoer was used to, a lot of people were angry about it and we started to get a lot of complaints.”
Without the cameras, addressing each complaint required a lot of time, House said — time that was largely freed up after the officers started wearing cameras.
“It was great because a complaint would come in, we’d pull the video feed, and almost instantly, we were able to clear those complaints rather than sometimes putting days of investigative work into solving a complaint. It made it really easy,” House said.
As long as footage shot using a body-worn camera is not flagged as evidence for an ongoing investigation, the files are considered public record and available by request from all three agencies.
Since early 2014, radio transmissions — which the WPD and the sheriff’s office have encrypted, or made unintelligible on scanners by scrambling the sounds — are also available through public records request. Both agencies cited officer safety as their motivation behind encryption.
McMahon said it was a hard decision to make.
“It was a big pill for me to swallow at first. Why would I want to encrypt it? Why would I not want people to hear? But when we started having our officers targeted, our officers threatened . . . I saw the danger there, and any time it comes down to officer safety, that’s where I have to draw the line,” McMahon said.
Concerns about interoperability and across-agency communications initially forced the WBPD to consider encryption, House said, before an alternate solution was discovered: the channel Wrightsville officers use to communicate with other agencies is encrypted, but the main dispatch channel remains open.
“We figured we were going to have to, but then once we found out we could just encrypt those individual channels, we chose to do that instead,” House said.
The same issues that motivated other agencies to encrypt are not as relevant in Wrightsville Beach, House said.
“They had a legitimate need. We just don’t have those same issues here, and it hadn’t been a problem,” House said.
WPD spokesperson Linda Rawley said encryption has eliminated some of the threats to officer security that motivated the switch.
“We don’t get the interference, and certainly we feel more secure in our radio transmissions when other folks aren’t able to pick it up, especially suspects and criminals,” Rawley said.
Brewer said most of the opposition to encryption came from the media, which has historically used scanners as a reporting tool.
“We weren’t encrypting to restrain the media, or govern them in any way. That’s just a side effect,” Brewer said.