Three cheers for Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
“I am saddened, I’m disappointed, and I’ll tell you I’m disgusted by any use of a tragedy to further some kind of political agenda around body cameras,” an angry Sauschuck said Tuesday – one day before a protester at City Hall called him “murderer” to his face.
The source of the chief’s frustration: painfully predictable demands for body cameras on Portland police officers – right now – after last weekend’s fatal police shooting of Chance David Baker in the Union Station Plaza parking lot on St. John Street.
According to police and eyewitnesses, Baker, 22, brandished what looked very much like a rifle. It turned out to be a pellet gun.
Witnesses said he randomly aimed the gun at passing vehicles before putting it down, apparently to adjust his pants. Then, against police orders, he picked up the weapon and was shot in the forehead by Sgt. Nicholas Goodman.
Enter Mayor Ethan Strimling, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the fledgling, shoot-from-the-hip activist group Progressive Portland, all of whom quickly called for the accelerated implementation of an existing plan to put body cameras on every cop in Portland beginning in July 2018.
The implication: Had body cameras been in use last weekend, we’d all know a lot more about what happened and why.
Meet Professor Seth Stoughton. He’s a former Special Response Team officer for the Tallahassee Police Department in Florida and now teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
He’s also an avid researcher of body cameras, which he supports with certain caveats, and has shared his expertise in recent years with thousands of judges, prosecutors and others throughout the country.
“I often compare body cameras to hammers,” Stoughton said in an interview Friday. “There are a number of jobs that the hammer is a perfect tool for. If you need to drive a nail, it’s great. If you need to pull a nail out and it has a claw on it, then it’s a pretty good tool.
“But if you’re trying to put a screw through a piece of wood, you’re only going to make things worse using a hammer. It doesn’t work so well.”
“What worries me about body cameras is the tendency that we have to assume that they will be a perfect tool to solve a large number of problems in a very holistic way,” Stoughton continued. “And just like a hammer, body cameras are limited tools. They’re really good for some things, and they’re not going to be very good for some things.”
Stoughton has produced a series of videos – shot close up from a body camera and simultaneously from a distance – to demonstrate his point.
In one, the “officer” (played by Stoughton) approaches a vehicle occupied by a noticeably agitated African-American man.
Without warning, the driver’s door suddenly swings open. The man jumps out and runs. The officer falls to the ground. It’s all over in seconds.
The body-camera angle suggests that the man knocked the officer down and fled. But the footage taken from a distance shows that neither the man nor the car door touched the officer, who simply fell down.
And the reason the man was so freaked out in the first place?
There was a bee in the car. (If you listen closely as the officer first approaches, you can hear the man hollering, “Bee! Bee! Bee!”) He’s simply trying to avoid getting stung.
In another body-camera video without audio, the officer and a man appear to be engaged in a violent confrontation inside a parking garage.
From a distance, it turns out they’re dancing to salsa music.
Then there’s the body-camera video Stoughton did with Jeff Rossen of NBC News. It shows the officer approaching a despondent Rossen and suddenly, for no apparent reason, wrestling him to the ground.
In reality, as the longer-range shot shows, there was a darn good reason for the takedown. Outside the narrow range of the body camera, Rossen had a fake handgun and stuck it point-blank into the officer’s abdomen.
Stoughton maintains that the closer a body camera gets to the person being confronted by a police officer, the less useful it becomes.
“As soon as there’s physical movement, so that the camera is bouncing around on the officer’s clothing, you effectively lose all or almost all of the value of that camera,” he said. “In the wrong set of circumstances, body cameras can be misleading. It can give people a false perception about what happened.”
And it’s not just commotion that can distort the real picture.
Because body cameras are worn on the chest, the viewer typically looks up at the person in front of the officer. That often makes the subjects look much bigger than the officer – even when they’re of similar size.
“When you look up at someone, they look taller, they look broader, and that’s more threatening,” Stoughton said. “So if all we had was the (body camera) video, people would say, “Wow, this guy’s much, much taller than the officer.’ And they would be very confident of that. They’d be wrong, but they’d be confident of that.”
Which brings us to one final concern: Videos, unlike written statements or court testimony, powerfully impact the viewing public to the point where they consider themselves actual eyewitnesses to an event.
And to that elevated status each of us brings all of our own biases – including support or suspicion of our local police.
Thus, cautions Stoughton, “it’s important to recognize the limitations of the information the video can actually provide. And it’s also important to recognize the limitations of our ability to interpret the information provided via the video.”
Equally if not more important, Stoughton said, is for police departments to take the necessary time to carefully develop policies – with ample input from the community, the courts, prosecutors, private attorneys and police officers themselves – on exactly how and when to use body cameras.
(And then to make those policies public – a lesson learned the hard way last month by South Portland’s police department when it initially kept its body-camera policy secret. After a loud outcry, the four-page policy was released.)
Stoughton believes such policies should reflect the delicate balancing of three benefits: signaling to the community that a police force is striving to be open and transparent; using body cameras to promote greater civility among both police and the public; and providing evidence, however useful it may or may not be, that otherwise would not exist.
Add to that, he noted, stringent enforcement of the policy once the body cameras have actually been deployed.
All of which takes time.
“It is much more important to do it the right way than it is to do it quickly,” Stoughton said. “If you do it quickly and you do it the wrong way, not only will it not have short-term benefits, but it can have long-term costs.”
Clearly, Chief Sauschuck intends to do this the right way, starting with a pilot program.
That’s one reason why, shortly after he was called a murderer by one of a dozen young protesters who see the world only in black and white, the Portland City Council on Wednesday applauded Sauschuck for being named Maine’s 2017 Police Chief of the Year.
He’s more than earned it.
And knee-jerk reactions aside, Portland is lucky to have him.
Correction: This story was updated at 8:14 a.m. on Feb. 26 to clarify that the time frame for Chief Sauschuck’s pilot program is not yet certain.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: