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.


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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 cameras in their cruisers.

Lt. James Sweatt of the Portland Police Department said adopting the new technology would be a large project -- learning to manage the new system, storing the influx of new data and buying 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.


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.

The Seattle 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 wearable cameras.

Gaspar said he increasingly hears stories of police using force and being recorded on amateur cellphone videos and that 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 ACLU of Maine, said while her organization approves of the use of wearable cameras, the civil liberties group would be wary of police storing a backlog of video. She said the ACLU of Maine 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.

He found that when his officers wore the cameras during the monthlong study, the 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, since they 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.

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