The Maine State Police are pursuing a plan to outfit every trooper with body-worn cameras, and the agency is now researching how to create a robust, affordable recording system for nearly 300 troopers that could be put out for bid as soon as next year.

Col. John P. Cote said he has directed staff to spend at least the next six months developing a detailed plan outlining the agency’s needs and the challenges it will face in outfitting each trooper with a chest-mounted recording device. He said it’s a matter of when, and not if, the agency adopts the technology.

“We know that certainly in the last several years body-worn cameras have gained in their deployment,” Cote said in a phone interview Wednesday. “They have become almost an expectation, so we don’t want to be one of the last ones coming to the table. I think by the end of this year, by the end of 2021, we’d like to have at least a design cornerstone in place to say, ‘Hey this is what a solution for the Maine State Police is going to look like.'”

It’s not the first time state police have looked into acquiring the technology, which Cote said is a useful tool in maintaining accountability and providing unbiased records of police interactions for the 291 sworn troopers. But the cost estimates in years past have been too high, to the tune of roughly $3.5 million to $4 million. He is hoping advances in technology have brought the camera systems within reach.

If all goes well, Cote hopes to have a completed request for proposals in 2022, which will kickstart the public bidding process for the technology. But many variables could influence that timeline, including state budget constraints and other agency needs, he said. Ultimately, the Legislature and the governor also will have a say in how and when to spend public cash for the system.

“We’re certainly going to look at different vendors and their solutions, but it still comes down to a pretty significant fiscal note,” he said. “It’s something that we welcome, but we want to do it right, and we want to make sure that when we approach the Legislature we have solid facts, solid figures, and a long-term solution.”

THERE IS NO MANDATE

Neither the Department of Public Safety nor the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which has authority over statewide police standards, keeps a definitive list of agencies that have adopted the devices, and there is no mandate that agencies use them or pursue them. Some agencies, including the Waterville Police Department, still do not use dashboard or cruiser-mounted camera systems, which have become a standard tool across the nation for thousands of police agencies. Waterville is now pursuing it’s own body-worn camera system, and it would be the first time since a dashcam pilot in the 1990s that interactions by its police officers were recorded.

Other large police departments in Maine, including South Portland and Portland, already have adopted the devices, and other agencies are following suit. But with 291 sworn officers, the Maine State Police is by far the largest police agency in the state and covers the biggest geographic territory.

While there was no cost estimate yet for Maine state police’s system, other agencies that have adopted the system have had to bear the costs, sometimes with help from grants.

Portland police, the state’s second largest agency with about 152 sworn officers, paid for its first pilot body camera program with grant money. Portland implemented body cameras agency-wide in 2019, buying about 120 of the units for its patrol officers at a cost of $350,000. The city continues to shoulder additional annual costs to continue running the program and handle the massive amounts of data generated each hour of every day, that in turn must be stored, logged and preserved, said David Singer, a spokesman for the department.

For Maine State Police, patrolling the state’s vast, sparsely populated counties poses a unique challenge. In municipal or local agencies, officers typically start their shifts at police headquarters, where the cameras are stored, charged and docked to download footage.

LOGISTICS AND GEOGRAPHY POSE CHALLENGES

But troopers take their cruisers home with them each night, and often start their shifts without first appearing in person at a troop barracks. That means that in current practice, footage from cruiser dashboard cameras must be sorted and uploaded by troopers. Body-worn camera footage will likely be no different, meaning new responsibilities and a potentially heavier reliance on each trooper’s internet access at their private home.

“It’s a very different work environment for rural based officers,” Cote said. “We have officers who don’t actually visit their troop barracks for several weeks at a time. So if they live in a remote area like Caratunk, how do we move terabytes of data over days and weeks to a central server?”

To help untangle those questions, Cote plans to work with his counterparts in Vermont and Massachusetts, whose state police forces recently adopted body cameras. Some of the same logistical hurdles that Cote expects to encounter in Maine likely already have been addressed in those states.

Massachusetts state police piloted a program in 2019 and began agency-wide implementation this spring. Vermont began the research phase of body cameras in 2015 and only rolled the program out last year.

In Maine, besides the hardware and software costs, the Department of Public safety likely will have to hire new staff to manage the massive trove of video data, organize it and help respond to the increase in requests for public information that agencies typically see when they begin collecting new data from police interactions. Police dashboard footage is regularly requested by attorneys in civil and criminal cases that involve the police, and Cote said the agency will have to account for that extra time and staff work.

The logistics and geography of Maine also raise questions about who will pay for internet service to download and send video when the work is not being performed at a government office or a police station. Slicing up and defining the responsibility each trooper will have to send or compile that footage and on what schedule are sure to become a topic of collective bargaining, Cote said.

The Maine State Trooper’s Association contract was extended for six months until Dec. 31, 2021, Cote said, but it’s not yet clear whether the body camera issue will be included in the next round of contract negotiations. The topic also could be broken out later, for a special bargaining session when the state is closer to moving forward, he said. MSTA President Sgt. Thomas Pappas did not respond to a request for an interview Wednesday.

POLICY INPUT TO BE SOUGHT

Further down the line, Cote expects to convene a working group to develop a camera policy that will govern when troopers must and must not record events. It’s too early to say what that policy might look like, but he expects to involve a diverse group to provide input on what is appropriate.

That policymaking process could have a public input component, as well as incorporate outside advice from advocacy groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine so far has not been contacted about the Maine State Police body camera policy, but the civil rights group has been outspoken about policy goals in the past.

Meagan Sway, policy director for the ACLU of Maine, said that as tools for accountability and transparency, body-worn cameras are only as good as the policies that back them up.

“Those policies must be clear and must be consistently and stringently enforced,” Sway said in a statement. “They must limit officer discretion on when to film and ensure government transparency, especially when there are accusations of excessive or deadly force.

“Although body cameras can address accountability, they will not solve the deeper societal issues that we have for too long left to police, such as poverty and drug use. To meaningfully address those ongoing crises in our state, we must divest resources from police, who are not trained mental health experts, and reinvest in mental health, housing and other wraparound supports that give every person in Maine the ability to thrive on their own terms.”


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