Saturday, December 7, 2013
If you have a run-in with Wilton police, odds are you are being recorded. They have been using pager-sized cameras clipped to their uniforms for a little more than a year to record their interactions with the public.
Wilton police officer Billie Martin holds a small Cop Vu camera that can be worn on an officer's uniform. A visual and audio recording of a recent incident, recorded by the camera, is displayed on a nearby computer screen.
Staff photo by David Leaming
A small video camera is clipped to the right chest pocket of Waterville police officer Damon Lefferts' uniform.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans
In central Maine, police are generally comfortable that their body-worn cameras will lead to evidence proving accusations periodically made against them are false. Those departments without wearable cameras said they would buy them if they had the money in the budget.
In other parts of the country, however, police unions and police chiefs have made national news for vehemently condemning their local officials for trying to buy the clip-on cameras and require their officers to wear them.
New York City's mayor and representatives from the police union recently condemned a federal judge's plan to require a sampling of officers to wear the tiny cameras, according to the Associated Press. The judge's order was part of an effort to spur reform in the 35,000-officer department, which has been criticized for singling out minorities in its "stop and frisk" program.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the cameras were unnecessary and would prove ineffective at monitoring police behavior.
Some people on both sides also voiced concern that the cameras would infringe on privacy rights.
As part of an experiment in Seattle, a group of police officers is required to wear cameras, following a threat of a lawsuit if reforms were not made within the department.
A Justice Department investigation found that one out of every five times a Seattle officer used force, the use was unconstitutional.
Representatives from the police union said the cameras invade citizen privacy, and they raised concerns that the deal requires police to record even if a citizen asks them to stop doing so.
During the last two years, a handful of Maine police departments adopted the technology and are using digital video to photograph citizens through small, cheap cameras that police wear clipped to their uniforms. The move replaces dashboard-mounted cameras many departments are using.
The goal is to record video from the officer's point of view, for use as evidence against suspects, to protect officers from unfounded accusations and to protect the public from police misconduct.
While in other states the adoption of the small cameras has ignited controversy about rights and privacy, the otherwise feuding parties — police chiefs, civil rights interests, defense attorneys and police labor unions — seem to generally agree in Maine that the cameras are a good thing.
Rachel Healy, director of communications for the Maine American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization believes the wearable cameras can be a way to protect rights of police and citizens.
"They can be useful protecting the public from police misconduct, and officers are protected from unfounded complaints," Healy said.
For the Wilton Police Department, the cameras were first a tool to address domestic violence in the community.
Wilton Police Chief Heidi Wilcox said in those cases — a frequent one for the department — victims often take back or amend their statements to responding police officers.
"By the time you go to court, they often recant their testimony," she said.
The department's first camera was paid for by a grant for domestic-violence prevention, with the intent of preserving the moment officers appear at a scene along with recording statements from witnesses interviewed immediately after a possible crime.
Wilcox said the cameras, however, quickly served a broader purpose of capturing any crime scene or interview so the court does not have to rely on the word of the officer, but rather the images and sound recorded by the camera.
She said the cameras have proved to be durable in snow and rain. She said they pick up sound well and the department has been satisfied with the recordings.
Wilton, along with nearby Farmington, is one of two police departments in Franklin County to use body-worn cameras.
Over the last few years, they have begun to catch on in scattered departments across the state, such as the Gardiner Police Department. In area departments without the cameras, some officers have decided to pay for them out of their own pockets.
Officer Damon Lefferts of the Waterville Police Department said he bought his camera for about $50 when he started at the department a month and a half ago. Lefferts said the camera has given him evidence needed to make an arrest, including once when he was interviewing a hesitant woman who showed signs of being abused.
After a long conversation, he was able to get her to confirm that the domestic abuse was happening. Without the recording, he said, it would have been easy for her to recant and he would have lost the evidence needed for his case. He said the woman was not happy that she couldn't take back her statement, but he said by making the case, he was working to keep her safe.
"Hopefully, I helped her out in the long run," he said.
Lefferts said the higher the risk of the call he is responding to, the more thankful he is that he has the camera.
Chief Joseph Massey of the Waterville police said Lefferts is one of two officers who bought wearable cameras, and he said the officers also all have voice recorders and have the option of spending some of their clothing allowance from the city on cameras.
(Continued on page 2)