The Portland Police Department has equipped all patrol officers with body cameras, and most interactions with the public are now being recorded.

Portland police officer Nevin Rand wears one of the body cameras that the department distributed recently to all of its roughly 120 patrol officers. The department has issued guidelines to officers laying out the situations in which they should turn them off. Video from the cameras will be available through public records requests. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The move is the result of years of planning in Maine’s largest city. City officials secured seed money for a pilot program in April 2017. The Portland City Council approved two labor contracts with police unions that paved the way for body cameras in November of that year.

The department implemented the pilot program in April 2018 and drafted policies on camera usage, data storage and public access to recordings. This year, the city used $345,000 in capital improvement funds to purchase the equipment for roughly 120 patrol officers, and now all of the those officers are using them on the job.

Portland Chief Frank Clark, who started last month after working for the South Portland department, which adopted body cameras in 2017, said the rollout has been positive.

“They’ve time and time again shown us that the officers are out there doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Clark said.

Supporters say body cameras promote transparency and monitor police behavior. Still, some have raised concerns about privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called on the city to adopt the cameras in February 2017 after a Portland police officer shot and killed a 22-year-old black man. But the organization also has been concerned about how the videos will be viewed and stored, and the national ACLU has said most footage should not be released to the public, except when there is a strong public interest, such as the use force or a complaint against an officer.

“Police body cameras have the potential to serve as a much-needed police oversight tool,” Maine ACLU spokeswoman Rachel Healy wrote in an email. “But without good policies in place, they also have the potential to become just another surveillance tool, ripe for abuse. Good policies will govern when the cameras are turned on and off ,and who has access to the footage.”

The city of Portland has adopted a policy for body cameras. The eight-page document explains that officers should turn on their body cameras for all interactions with the public. It also outlines the circumstances in which the officer would turn off the camera or not record.

For example, if the scene of an alleged crime is stable and the victim asks for the camera to be turned off, the officer should do so. School resource officers should only activate their cameras if they are responding to a suspected crime or assisting with disruptive behavior, and police officers responding to calls in healthcare facilities should limit their recordings to protect patient privacy.

Police also should not record while they are speaking to confidential informants, conducting strip searches, on personal breaks or in their locker rooms.

The policy also governs how the videos can be viewed and how long they should be kept. Members of the public can request copies of videos under the Freedom of Access Act, but Clark said those requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis to protect confidential information, such as safety planning for a victim of suspected domestic violence.

“I leave that up to the (city) attorney to make that assessment,” he said.

A bill to require all Maine police officers to wear body cameras failed in the Legislature this year. An estimated 50 departments equipped their officers with body cameras at the time, but law enforcement officials worried about the cost of mandating them across the state.

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