Some Maine police departments already have been considering equipping officers with body cameras, even before President Obama announced a proposal Monday to reimburse municipalities for half the cost.

“If the president wants to buy body cameras, I’ll be more than happy. It would allow us to purchase more of them,” said Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly Jr., who plans to include the purchase of as many as 12 of the pager-sized devices in next year’s budget.

South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins formed a committee in October to study the technology and policies governing its use, and expects to receive the committee’s report next month.

“We’re looking at whether or not it makes sense and also what products are available,” he said. If the city decides to move forward, “the president’s announcement (Monday) could make that a little easier.”

Obama proposed spending $75 million over three years on the purchase of 50,000 body cameras and equipment as one component of a plan to improve police-community relations in the wake of rioting in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests and vandalism were triggered after Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in August. More protests in Missouri and other cities across the country – including Portland – took place last week after a grand jury declined to indict the officer.

The increased push for body cameras, however, has raised questions of privacy and cost.

Larger police departments around the country have begun purchasing the cameras for officers’ use in pilot programs. The New York Police Department plans to outfit 60 of its roughly 34,500 officers with cameras, and the District of Columbia started a program in the fall. New Hampshire’s Legislature will consider a bill next session to require state police to wear the cameras.

In Maine, a handful of police departments, including in Wilton and Gardiner, have begun using body cameras, which are worn clipped to an officer’s uniform.

Some research has suggested that using body cameras can help build community relations. Figures from pilot programs show fewer uses of force by police and fewer complaints of police misconduct, although there is not enough data to draw a conclusion about body cameras’ usefulness. In the Ferguson case, a police body camera might have disproved some of the widely divergent descriptions about what exactly happened during the shooting.

Although there is some public support for initiatives such as body cameras, the devices also can taint relations between officers and the community by implying police are not to be trusted, said Paul Gaspar, executive director of the Maine Association of Police, a labor organization that represents about 1,000 law enforcement personnel across the state.

“I don’t think the average officer is opposed to body cameras. I think they are opposed to the idea of body cameras being introduced” as a check on police, he said. “Your average officer who has nothing to do with Ferguson is somehow labeled as someone who can’t be trusted.”

However, Gaspar said the body cameras can be an effective tool for police as well, and will almost always support the officer’s version of events. However, he said there are other tools and initiatives that should also receive federal support, including a bill to help pay for bulletproof vests, which is currently stalled in Congress.

“If we’re fighting over federal funding and we have to choose between cameras and the vest partnership program … I would rather have a piece of equipment that saves an officer’s life than a record of his last few minutes,” Gaspar said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has generally favored body cameras, even though the organization generally opposes indiscriminate video recording of the public. But unlike cameras designed to allow government to keep an eye on the public, body cameras help the public keep an eye on the government, the civil rights organization said.

“When implemented well, on-officer cameras have the potential to be a win-win. They can help protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time help protect police against false accusations of abuse,” said Rachel Healy, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maine. “To do it right, the use of body cameras must be accompanied by strong privacy protections and a guarantee that the content they capture won’t be misused.”

The ACLU opposes giving police officers wide discretion on use of the cameras, such as when to turn them on or off, and said residents in their own homes should be alerted that their encounter with police is being recorded. People who are not suspects should be able to request that the camera be turned off. The ACLU also says that recordings should be destroyed if there are no complaints or flags raised, and should not be made public to ridicule behavior, as has happened with video from police cruiser cameras.

Some police departments, however, aren’t convinced that body cameras are a good idea.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the logistics and policies surrounding use of the cameras, access to the recordings and the cost of storing the data need to be developed, and that research on the effectiveness of the cameras is inconclusive.

All of Portland’s marked cruisers have video recorders, and the officers assigned to them wear audio recorders.

The technology does hold the promise of making police work more transparent to the public.

“Then we have nothing to hide,” Sauschuck said. “I’m not scared about what the video would show.”

Wilton Police Chief Heidi Wilcox is a fan of body cameras. Three years ago, she took over a small department that was struggling with community mistrust. Its six officers also had no recording equipment at all, not even cruiser cameras. The cost of buying two body cameras for the officers was less than $1,000 total, while installing a cruiser video system would have been nearly $5,000 for just one car.

“It’s huge in prosecution,” she said. “If you actually hear a person going through a field sobriety test, it’s very convincing. A lot of times those people will change their mind about contesting prosecution when they see how they were that night.”

Wilcox said cameras also have been effective when handling complaints about officers’ behavior. She said she can sit down with a complainant and use the video to review an encounter.

“It’s very compelling for most people. It’s had a very positive return for us,” she said.

Police commanders, however, say the cameras can’t take the place of effective policing.

“No technology in the world is going to establish the trust and the rapport that police should have in their community,” said Googins, the South Portland chief.

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