Monday, December 9, 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.
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.
In Maine, police are not required to disclose they are using the cameras, and Hanstein said his only reservation about the wearable cameras would be their use in situations in which a person reasonably would expect privacy.
For example, he said, no one should expect privacy if police are investigating an assault in a parking lot.
If an officer goes to someone's house for a noise complaint, however, and then quietly shoots video while walking around, Hanstein thinks that could violate privacy.
Wearable vs. cruiser cameras
Even in traffic stops, when cruiser cameras on dashboards typically are used, Wilcox said the mobile cameras are more useful.
She said dashboard cameras capture only partially the traffic stops and the conversation between the officer and the driver. The wearable camera allows a full recording shot of the driver and strengthens the evidence against drivers who have committed crimes.
For example, a drunken driver's responses to police would be laid bare.
"You can actually hear the person slurring their speech while they're trying to say the alphabet," Wilcox said.
When Wilcox became police chief in 2011, she said, the department cruiser cameras were broken, so the department had no way to record.
She said the $850 wearable cameras not only were a versatile recording option, but were the only affordable one compared to cruiser cameras, which can cost $4,000.
Wilcox said the cameras also allow for more comfortable interviews. She said police often record interviews, and instead of having witnesses come to the Police Department, the officers are able to interview people in their own homes, which is less intimidating.
She said copies of the footage are sent to the district attorney's office and the defendant's lawyer.
Wilcox said the cameras also have cleared up accusations made against her officers on multiple occasions.
"I'll invite the person with the complaint to come down to my office and review the incident," she said.
Wilcox said the recordings give her proof, and not just the officer's word, that the officer was not rude and didn't use excessive force against someone.
"I can see the recording and tell my guys acted with restraint," she said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252