Jun. 14—All 84 officers in the Bangor Police Department will now be equipped with body cameras, a new tool years in the making that police and prosecutors are welcoming.
City councilors approved the proposal last October by a 6-3 vote. The city will spend $364,049 over three years to lease the cameras and storage space.
"We are excited to have this tool at our disposal," Sgt. Wade Betters, spokesperson for the department, said Friday. "Implementing a body-worn camera program is extremely expensive but in today's day and age cameras might become standard or mandatory equipment for police."
The council began talking about outfitting officers with cameras nearly three years ago, with the goal of building more trust between police and citizens. The initiative was delayed so city officials could develop a policy to ensure citizens' privacy would not be violated if caught on video. That policy has been in place since early 2019 but funding was not approved until last year.
Cameras clip onto a mount that attaches to officers' shirts below the pockets but above the waist, Betters said. Employees who do not regularly wear uniforms, including plain-clothes detectives, are being issued body cameras, though detectives will only wear body cameras when wearing uniforms.
Over the past two to three months, the department has worked with WatchGuard to set up data storage, charging stations, policy reviews and training, Betters said. The Seattle-based security firm also provides the video cameras in Bangor's cruisers
"The camera records just about everything the officer can see and hear," Betters said. "It is going to be great for prosecution and case reviews for accuracy."
Prosecutors in the Penobscot County District Attorney's office joined police officers earlier this week for training in how the cameras work, District Attorney Marianne Lynch said.
"Body cameras will enhance the efforts of the prosecution because it is another means of documentation of officers' investigations," she said. "Jurors, who now have much more personal experience with real time video than in the past, are looking for this type of evidence presented in cases."
Orono police have been using body cameras for more than five years, according to Chief Joshua Ewing. The department originally purchased eight cameras and a hard drive for storage as a package in early 2016 for about $30,000 plus $3,000 per year for maintenance. Next year, it plans to provide cameras for all 15 of its full-time officers and move to cloud storage for about $23,000 per year.
Brewer recently invested about $50,000 in equipment. Officers began wearing body cameras just before the pandemic struck.
"It's been a great investment," Deputy Chief Chris Martin said Friday. "We rely heavily on them."
In addition to providing evidence for prosecutors, Martin said the camera footage is helpful in dealing with people who make complaints about how an officer handled a situation. People see themselves in a video and get a different perspective on how things unfolded, Martin said.
Brewer initially had problems with how long it was taking to upload video from the cameras to the server. It also was time-consuming to download footage to discs or thumb drives for the district attorney's office. But upload speed has since improved dramatically, and officers may now send video links to prosecutors, Martin said.
Some but not all body camera footage is subject to the state's Freedom of Access Act, which outlines what is considered a public document.
"Just because we have the video doesn't mean that we can release it to the public," Betters told a Bangor television station. "There will be some videos that we can release to the public but very few without redaction. If they are pending prosecution, the district attorney's office will be in control of all evidence obtained in a case."
Those redactions could include blurring out the faces of victims and witnesses or people who happened to be nearby when an incident took place but weren't directly involved in it, he said.
Betters warned that a body camera is not the same as human eyes.
"A person's peripheral vision is better than what the camera can see," he said. "It is designed to see what the officer sees, so if it is nighttime and dark, that is what the camera records. We can't lighten it to enhance the image."
Nationwide, the use of body cameras by law enforcement has gained traction since last summer, when local and national protests against police brutality and racial injustice took place following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on him for more than nine minutes.
A team of public safety experts and economists recently found that departments using body-worn cameras saw the number of complaints against officers drop by 17 percent and the use of force by their officers fall by 10 percent.
The research from the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Council on Criminal Justice's Task Force on Policing acknowledged the expense of body-worn cameras, but found that they led to cost savings from the reduction in citizen complaints and the averted costs associated with the use of force.
"That's hopeful but not a panacea," Professor Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, told NPR. "Body-worn cameras are a useful part of the response but not a solution by themselves. Body-worn cameras are not going to solve the problem of the enormous gap we see in police use of force in the U.S. against Black versus white Americans."