Cobb County school resource officers began wearing something new on their uniforms earlier this month: body cameras.
Increasingly, school officers nationwide are wearing the cameras to record encounters between themselves and students, parents or intruders.
The move is largely in response to protests, rioting and demonstrations about several encounters nationwide with police that resulted in the deaths of unarmed African-American men, starting with last year’s incident in Ferguson, Mo. Critics say police officers should have body cameras to record video that may expose potential misconduct or exonerate the officer. But there’s still vigorous debate concerning whether cameras on school resource officers, recording the actions of minors, is appropriate.
“By and large, we don’t think as a routine notion that school resource officers should be carrying cameras into schools,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The balance of oversight and privacy is different in schools.”
Three of metro Atlanta’s six largest school districts have officers who wear the cameras: Cobb, Clayton and Gwinnett. Officers in the three other districts — Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton — do not.
DeKalb school officials hope to get at least five cameras by the end of the school year. A Fulton spokeswoman said there’s been internal discussions about using the cameras. Atlanta police are scheduled to begin a pilot program by the end of the year using body cameras in much of southwest Atlanta, but the plans do not include testing them in any schools.
Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett officials say the videos have not exposed any officer misconduct.
Last month, smartphone video recorded a sheriff’s deputy in Columbia, S.C. dragging a female student from a classroom. The deputy was fired a few days after the video made national news.
There’s no data about how many school districts nationwide have body cameras “because it’s a new issue,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Cobb school police Chief Ron Storey said his department started thinking about getting the cameras after Ferguson and field tested them before the end of the last school year. Cobb paid $41,000 for the cameras for its 60 officers and about $30,000 for the computer servers and recording storage space.
“We thought it’d be good for evidentiary purposes and for safety purposes,” he said.
Storey said his officers are supposed to turn on the cameras when there is an incident. Last week, though, a Cobb school officer did not turn on her body camera when she pepper sprayed several Floyd Middle School students while trying to break up a fight. Some of the students hit with the pepper spray were not involved in the fight.
“It happened so fast she forgot to turn her body camera on,” Storey said.
Clayton County school officers have been using the cameras since 2013, said Major Debra Williams. Only sworn officers who carry weapons wear the cameras, she said. Like Cobb, the Clayton officers are supposed to turn on the cameras when there is an encounter.
“It gives us the added eye,” Williams said.
Some officers, she said, initially didn’t like the idea of wearing body cameras because they believed it was a veiled attempt by administrators to monitor their actions. One unforeseen benefit of the cameras, Williams said, is some students behave better when they see an officer with a body camera.
Gwinnett County parent Marlyn Tillman, who leads a group that has raised concerns about school disciplinary policies, is conflicted about the idea. She’s intrigued by the possibility of cameras exposing officer misconduct. But she also wonders about student privacy.
“We are talking about juveniles,” she said. “I do not know if (the cameras) will accomplish anything. The police still have the opportunity to turn it off. Once you have the ability to turn it off, you don’t have the smoking gun.”
Don Smith, the public safety director in DeKalb schools, said he’s doing research to determine the best use of the cameras. He said they’ll have to be “overly cautious” because the officers are in schools, but he believes the cameras will improve transparency for those concerned about law enforcement encounters in schools.
“There is a changing of the times and we have to be part of the evolution,” he said.