The South Portland Police Department will begin equipping its on-duty officers with body cameras in a matter of weeks, becoming the first department in Greater Portland to adopt the technology.

But even as the city moves toward adopting a measure that advocates say offers greater transparency, the police department says it will not permit city residents to read the policies that govern when the police force will be recording them.

Chief Edward Googins said the department recently took delivery of two-dozen chest-mounted cameras that will go into service later this month or in early February after a Jan. 18 meeting where residents can learn more about the program and ask questions.

“The whole national interest in body cameras has influenced our decision to go down this path, but video recording incidents from our cruisers we have done since the 1990s,” Googins said. “What the body camera program for us will be is an enhancement of the system we already have.”

Yet, in an interview, Googins acknowledged that the cameras have the capability of recording so much more than the dashboard-mounted versions, bringing the recording of police interactions from curbside into living rooms and businesses, or any other place where officers go.

“I think we’ll be recording more events than we originally thought we were going to record,” he said.

Beyond saying that the cameras will record officers’ interactions with the public, he has declined to provide specifics about when they must be turned on or off, and when officers have the power to decide that a situation is worth recording.

This withholding of basic policy information about how police will use a law enforcement tool goes against recommendations developed in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Justice, which said that body camera policy should be developed with community participation, and with full disclosure of what the rules are once they are finalized.

“Policies should be specific enough to provide clear and consistent guidance yet allow room for flexibility as the (body camera) program evolves,” according to a summary of the report. “Agencies should make the policies available to the public.”

In refusing to go into specifics, Googins cited an “operational impact” to the department if details were released to the public, and said he would have to consult with the city attorney about releasing more information. He did not return requests for clarifications about what the term “operational impact” means.

“The procedures themselves do have an operational impact, so we can’t share them,” he said. “There are some general guidelines that we can share. And our policy statements we can share. But the very specific decisions here should not be fully shared, because the officer is wearing the camera and the knowledge that it’s there is sufficient.”

Googins did, however, release the public portion of the document:

“It is the policy of this department to maintain and require officers to use (mobile audio/video recording) equipment to fulfill the objectives outlined below,” the policy states. “Officers shall operate the (mobile audio/video recording) equipment in accordance with this policy.” The remaining substance of the policy – in which the guidelines for using the cameras are actually described – was not provided, and he did not respond to a call and email requesting clarification for why it was removed.

He added later:

“We’re clearly not in the business of hiding what we’re doing,” Googins said. “We’re mindful of how it will impact (the public), when we walk into their home, when we go into settings where people are not typically recorded.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has called this secrecy into question, saying it serves no good purpose.

“The main purpose of police body cameras is to foster trust between police and the communities they serve,” said Zachary Heiden, the legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “By keeping its policy a secret, the South Portland Police Department is not getting off to a good start on that score.”

The situation also drew concern from Charis E. Kubrin, a professor of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine.

Kubrin, who has kept close tabs on the roll-out of body cameras in the Los Angeles Police Department and is among the academics watching and studying how policy is being developed throughout the country, said that at first glance, South Portland’s position sounds strange.

“There’s a lot of debate about what those policies should be,” Kubrin said. “But I have not heard of police departments not sharing those policies or citing operational reasons for not revealing what those policies are.”

Kubrin said agencies across the country are approaching this same quandary and are coming up with different answers.

“Departments are doing what they’re doing, I don’t think there’s a template at this point.”

She also cautioned against pinning too many hopes and dream on the cameras, especially as it relates to racial bias in policing.

She said that in many recent high-profile cases where camera footage – either shot by a bystander or recorded from a lapel of an officer’s uniform – has become a mirror of sorts for the viewer’s own notions about justice, equality and fairness.

“There’s objective reality, but objective reality is often subjective,” she said. “What I see in these cases is that with this footage, everyone’s analyzing it, and seeing it in completely different ways.”

The national focus on body cameras came after the Aug. 9, 2014, killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot by a white policeman who was later cleared of wrong-doing in the case. Intense scrutiny of the course of events, and early, sometimes contradictory information about how the shooting unfolded, led to widespread calls for more cameras and more transparency.

Now, a subset of federally funded research is underway to examine the cameras’ overall effect on law enforcement and community relations, and in 2015, the U.S. Justice Department offered $20 million in grants for departments to adopt the equipment and develop policies on their use.

“Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at the announcement of the grants.

But the issues continue to be difficult to navigate.

To illustrate the thorniness, Googins gave the hypothetical example of people demonstrating in public or otherwise exercising their First Amendment right to free speech, and a South Portland police officer is assigned to the area.

Would that interaction be recorded?

“Possibly,” Googins said. “We want people to freely exercise their rights, but there may come a point, in let’s say it’s a demonstration, that the cameras should be on. There is enough latitude there to both respect folks’ rights, and document things that need to be documented.”

Googins declined to identify what factors or considerations would lead an officer to turn on the camera, or how the department balanced the free expression of rights with the department’s interests in public safety and policing.

In another example, Googins described another common situation for police: when an officer is standing in someone’s living room.

“People can ask us if we are in their home not to record them,” he said.

But will officers actually turn the camera off after someone asks?

“That’s the nuances of it,” he said. “Are we making an arrest, or are we taking a report from somebody?”

He declined to go into details about that policy position, too.

South Portland follows a handful of other police departments in the state that also use the technology, said Robert Schwartz, director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

Police in Fairfield, Gardner and Wilton already have adopted cameras, Schwartz said. Some of those departments moved toward body cameras after a citizen filed complaints of excessive use of force.

That was the case in Winslow, when a 2012 noise complaint ballooned into a court case that was not resolved until March 2016, when the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Schwartz said that issues surrounding privacy, access to video as a public record, and other issues central to the cameras are still in flux.

“You have the other situation is, how is the camera going to work, is it going to be the officer’s judgment if and when they turn it on?” said Schwartz, who retired from the South Portland Police Department in 1994, just as dashboard-mounted cameras were becoming common.

Police also will have to deal with the issue of whether footage gathered from body-worn cameras is a public record, and if so, how police should reproduce or redact parts that are exempt from public examination under the law.

“Someone’s going to have to transcribe that and reproduce it,” Schwartz said.

Googins said that after a few initial kinks are worked out, the small devices will replace the chest-mounted microphone that used to transmit audio to the dashboard camera. Now, the camera will gather its own video, as well as audio for both sets of cameras, he said.

The equipment and infrastructure to run it has cost South Portland roughly $70,000, according to a capital improvement plan approved by the council. Most of it, about $50,000, is city money, with the remainder supplied by a federal grant.

About $24,000 of the total alone paid for upgrading the data storage systems required to keep the footage archived and easily retrievable, Googins said.

When the department was developing its policy for the use of the cameras, Googins said he looked at model policies from the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as state and local police chiefs associations. The goal, he said, is to balance the needs of law enforcement to collect information and protect its officers, with the desire to maintain the privacy of police and the public.

“What we’re trying to do is institute a program that works for everybody,” Googins said. “It really revolves around when should the cameras be on, and when can they be off? That’s what it all boils down to.”

The public forum, at 7 p.m. on Jan. 18 at the Police station on Anthoine Street, will give people a chance to probe how and when the cameras will be used, what their limitations are, and what people should expect during interactions with police.

Googins said his department plans to retain the recordings for six months – which also is the limit of time for filing a lawsuit against an officer, he said.

 


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