2017-01-27 / Front Page

City police begin using body cameras

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland Police Lt. Thomas Simonds models the department’s new body cameras during a public hearing on a use policy for the new units, held Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the police station. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland Police Lt. Thomas Simonds models the department’s new body cameras during a public hearing on a use policy for the new units, held Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the police station. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — If there is any concern about the use of body cameras by South Portland police officers, it was not evident from attendance at a recent public hearing on the topic.

About 15 people attended the event, held Jan. 18 in the presentation room at the police station on Anthoine Street. But of those, all but four were either reporters or members of the department. And, of the rank-and-file city residents, two were former public officials who frequently attend such meetings, while the others were police volunteers.

Police Chief Ed Googins said he planned to release the department’s draft policy for use of the new equipment for public comment for the hearing. However, the policy was posted on the city website after some local media outlets criticized the chief for declining to release the draft when notice of the Jan. 18 meeting was posted to the department’s Facebook page.

Googins initially cited concern about the “operational impact” of releasing the draft early. At the meeting, he could not say precisely when the policy would take effect, or when officers would begin wearing the cameras on a daily basis, saying only that the policy was in a final review stage as officers tested the new units and the department digests input from the public, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and other stakeholders.

So, far, the reaction to imminent use of the new technology has been largely positive.

“We may not have unanimous feelings of, ‘This is the greatest thing on earth,’ but we do have a much higher level of enthusiasm for it than I expected,” said department spokesman Lt. Frank Clark.

On Monday, Jan. 23, Clark said the department started a “soft launch” of the camera over the preceding weekend “with a limited number of trained officers.”

“This will allow for their initial feedback to be incorporated into the final policy, which we anticipate (will be adopted) during early February,” he said.

According to Googins, the department, which for many years has used dashcams in its fleet of 18 police cruisers, began to seriously consider use of body cameras following the August 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement. The rallying cry of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” based on the belief that Michael Brown, a young black man stopped by police officer Darren Wilson, had been shot in the back while attempting to surrender. Wilson was later cleared of wrongdoing when forensic evidence showed that Brown was shot in the front while advancing on Wilson, while federal investigators could find no evidence to disprove Wilson, who had been attacked and shot seconds earlier when Brown tried to take his firearm, was in fear for his life.

“The body camera will help ensure that we all play by the rules,” Googins said. “As you can imagine that a lot of the events officers are involved in happen very quickly with a lot of things going on at one time. So, video evidence helps tremendously in the accuracy of reports. In training and evaluation, it’s a very important tool for us.

“It will improve accountability – and I’m not just talking about our accountability, but the accountability to the people we interact with day in and day out,” Googins said. “It also will increase transparency and legitimacy in our community, to improve both and civilian behavior, reducing the use of force.

“We also do, on occasion, get sued,” Googins said. “This evidence helps to evaluate people’s claims and/or allegations of misconduct.”

In August 2016 the city council awarded a sole source bid for $51,285 to Watch Guard of Allen, Texas, for 24 body cameras and related equipment. Those funds included an $18,426 federal grant, as well as $4,587 used from forfeited assets awarded to the department by the court system, with the balance coming from the city’s capital improvement plan for the current fiscal year.

The cameras measure about one and a half by two and a half inches, and can be worn almost anywhere on an officer’s body, thanks to a 130-degree fisheye lens. The cameras have both video and audio capability, and feature a GPS unit.

The new policy dictates when and where the cameras should be used, allowing them to be shut off during breaks and at protests, except when officers begin to interact with the public.

“We’re not there to monitor protests or people’s activities,” Googins said.

According to Police Lt. Thomas Simonds, officers must say whether they are recording when asked.

“What we are not asking them to do is proactively advise people when they show up with a camera on their chest that they are recording,” he said. “The expectation in 2017 is that we are all being recorded to some degree when we’re in the public venue.”

The camera automatically engages when a police cruiser reaches 70 mph, when its emergency lights are turned on regardless of speed, and when it is in a collision. When the officer is out of the vehicle and on duty, Clark said, “The default position is, the camera will be on all the time.”

Requests for public access to camera footage, retained for at least 180 days, will be handled by the department under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), which grants police departments wide latitude to keep such material under wraps when it is part of an ongoing investigation, or when it might reveal

“Legal prosecutors will have access to the video, as will defenders under discovery,” Googins said. “All requests go through an internal policy and that includes, when necessary, a legal review. We are required to follow statute and there are nuances that allow a video to be withheld should it divulge operational tactics.

“There is no one answer,” Googins said, in reference to what kinds of footage might be denied when the public or the media requests access. “It’s going to depend on what is in the video and what limitations we are held to by virtue of statutes.

“One of the things that has driven me nuts as chief on these FOAA requests, because we do want to share as much as we can, is that it’s not one single law,” Googins said. “There are several statutes that you have to apply, and some of these review can be very time consuming based on the contents of the report of the videos.

“So, there is no simple answer,” Googins said. “I can guarantee you, requests (for access) will be denied, and, in all likelihood, requests will be honored.”

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