August 18, 2013

Police officers in Maine wear cameras like badge

Wilton's chief is among proponents who say the small devices protect officers and the public.

By KAITLIN SCHROEDER Morning Sentinel

If you have a run-in with Wilton police, odds are you are being recorded.

During the last two years, several Maine police departments have adopted digital technology to record citizens with small video cameras clipped to officers' uniforms. The move replaces dashboard-mounted cameras.

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, police chiefs, civil rights advocates, defense attorneys and police labor unions in Maine seem to generally agree that the cameras are a good thing.

Rachel Healy, director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the organization believes the wearable cameras can be a way to protect the 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 used as a tool to address domestic violence in the community.

Wilton Police Chief Heidi Wilcox said in those frequent cases, the victims often change the statements they gave 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 and nearby Farmington are the two police departments in Franklin County to use wearable 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 departments without the cameras, some officers have decided to buy their own.

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.

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said Lefferts is one of two officers who bought wearable cameras and that all officers 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 wearable 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.

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