It’s good news that the South Portland Police Department will soon become the latest law enforcement agency in Maine to equip its officers with body cameras: technology that can both hold police accountable for how they treat civilians and present the officers’ perspective in loaded situations. But providing police with body cameras won’t enhance the public trust unless South Portland Chief Edward Googins clarifies the rules about their use.

Helping fund body cameras for local police departments became a federal priority after the fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Contradictory accounts of the encounter between Brown and the white officer who shot him – and was later cleared of wrongdoing in the case — led to widespread calls for more video recordings and greater accountability.

The handful of Maine police departments that have body cameras like them. The technology documents quickly unfolding events, allowing officers to notice things that hadn’t caught their attention earlier. Footage has strengthened domestic violence cases, recording initial statements by perpetrators and victims, as well as drunken-driving arrests. And both sides are more likely to be civil and respectful when their behavior is being recorded.

That said, there’s no getting around the fact that police body cams capture tension-filled moments in the lives of those they encounter, making a strong, clear recording policy an imperative. So it’s troubling that Chief Googins has offered so few specifics about how his department will use the technology. We know that the department plans to retain the recordings for six months – the limit of time for suing an officer — but we don’t know much else.

When, for example, will an officer be required to record an interaction? When will it be up to an officer to decide whether or not to record? Will an officer have to turn off their camera upon request if they’re in a private home? Googins won’t say, citing an “operational impact” on the department — even though the U.S. Justice Department has said that community participation and full disclosure are critical to the development of a credible camera policy.

Body cams will be the topic of a public forum at the police station in South Portland later this month, and the chief should prepare for more questions like this. The movement toward greater government transparency is gaining ground, not losing it, and citizens won’t be shutting up any time soon.


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