Thursday, December 12, 2013
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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.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said his deputies don't have the body-worn cameras unless they decide to buy them on their own. He said his department sees the value of the cameras but is facing serious budget shortages and can't afford to invest in the new technology now.
Larger police departments in Maine, including those in Bangor and Portland, also haven't invested in the cameras. While they have larger budgets, those departments also would need to buy a larger number of cameras for their sizable staffs. Also, unlike smaller departments, large ones usually already have cruiser cameras.
Lt. James Sweatt of the Portland Police Department said adopting the new technology would be a large project — learning to manage the new system, to store the influx of new data and to buy enough cameras for the officers.
"It's not something we're using right now and probably won't be in the near future unless a grant comes up," he said.
Protecting the public
One of the strongest selling points for area police departments is protecting officers from false accusations, but that's not the case nationally. Wearable cameras were initiated as a way to protect citizens from the police in New York, Seattle and elsewhere.
Seattle recently avoided a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging a pattern of excessive force by agreeing to sweeping reforms, including experimenting with wearable cameras to monitor their officers, the Associated Press reported.
Seattle's police officer labor union opposes the experiment, saying it requires officers to record all contacts with the public, even if they are asked to stop recording. A spokesman for the guild told local and national news media that the public should be wary of this loss of privacy.
Some police unions also have expressed concern that the video will be scanned for minor officer infractions.
Paul Gaspar, executive director of the Maine Association of Police, a labor organization that negotiates on behalf of its member departments, said the association favors the use of body-worn cameras.
Gaspar said he increasingly hears stories of police using force and being recorded on amateur cellphone videos, and he thinks those videos capture only part of the encounter.
He said if officers wear cameras, they can show the circumstances that escalated into the encounter, instead of just a clip of police using force.
"We view it as a very positive thing," he said.
Healy, of the Maine ACLU, said while her organization approves of the use of body-worn cameras a tool, the civil liberties group would be wary of police possibly storing a backlog of video. She said the ACLU would oppose using the recordings for purposes outside the case the video was originally shot for, such as trolling for other crimes.
While the technology is still new, at least one study says that when police use the cameras, a department receives fewer complaints and officers use less force.
Police Chief Tony Farrar, of Rialto, Calif., studied the cameras for his master's thesis in criminology to see whether they could reduce the number of times his officers use force and reduce complaints from citizens about officers, without decreasing interactions with the public.
His study found that when his officers wore the cameras during the monthlong study, use of force decreased by more than half, from 61 to 25 times; and complaints decreased 88 percent, from 23 to 3.
Farrar's department is made up of 115 sworn police officers and serves 100,000 residents.
Farmington defense attorney Woody Hanstein said he has had few reservations about the cameras and that they also could work on behalf of defendants, proving that there was not enough probable cause for an arrest.
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