Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
If an officer goes to someone's house for a noise complaint, however, and then quietly shoots video while walking around, Hanstein said that could violate privacy.
WEARABLE VS. DASHBOARD CAMERAS
Even in traffic stops, when dashboard cameras typically are used, Wilcox said the wearable cameras are more useful.
She said a dashboard camera captures only partially the traffic stop and the conversation between the officer and the driver. The wearable camera records a full shot of the driver and can strengthen the evidence against a driver who has committed a crime, such as drunken driving.
"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's dashboard 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 station, 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 can be contacted at 861-9252 or at: