Pace of body cam introduction in Portland sparks debate

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PORTLAND — Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his officers will eventually be wearing body cameras.

“They are coming; everyone will have them. There is a lot of value to them, but they are not a panacea,” he said in a Feb. 21 press conference at police headquarters.

The cameras became a contentious issue last week when Mayor Ethan Strimling and the Maine ACLU pushed for accelerated implementation, while the entire City Council, City Manager Jon Jennings and Sauschuck stressed the need for a limited, pilot program first.

“I am looking forward to working with police and civil rights organizations to have intensive engagement on a policy,” Councilor Pious Ali said at a City Hall press conference Feb. 22.

In South Portland, Police Chief Ed Googins said Monday a deliberate approach is the best way to go with body cameras.

His department began using 24 cameras on Jan. 20, and the program is still a work in progress, Googins said. Revised guidelines were set to be released March 1.

“It is not an exercise in writing something that sounds good. That has been a struggle,” he said.

It took South Portland police almost 2 1/2 years to get cameras in use, including six months of study in 2015, Googins said.

“There are a lot of moving pieces to this; we have solicited a lot of input,” he said, including from the Maine ACLU.

The local and national ACLU have reservations about increased surveillance in general, but have said there are benefits to using body cameras. Protecting individual privacy while ensuring police accountability is critical to developing a program where any video can be considered public record.

“Police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers,” the ACLU said in a 2015 position paper.

With $400,000 earmarked in the city’s fiscal year 2019 capital improvements budget, full use of body cameras could begin by July 1, 2018. On Feb. 16, Jennings said Sauschuck is developing a pilot program for this year with eight cameras and about $25,000 in funding.

Strimling has urged Jennings to set aside pilot-program funding in the upcoming CIP budget, but city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said Feb. 23 Sauschuck wants to use leftover funds from a U.S. Department of Justice Edward G. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant for the pilot program.

JAG money was used as seed money in South Portland, Googins said.

The Feb. 18 death of Chance David Baker, shot outside the Subway restaurant by Police Sgt. Nicholas Goodman, prompted calls from Strimling and the Maine ACLU, both of which urged more rapid implementation of body cameras.

A Freedom of Access Act request from The Forecaster for transcripts or tapes of the 911 calls about the incident was denied by police, citing personnel issues. Sauschuck and Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch have said callers reported Baker was pointing a weapon and yelling at people in the parking lot of Union Station Plaza.

“There were different and varying reports of what the weapon was,” Sauschuck said Feb. 18.

The shooting remains under investigation locally and by the Office of the Maine Attorney General.

Baker’s death did not change the councilors’ outlook, and Councilor Belinda Ray said a pilot program has long been in discussion, adding she told Strimling about it the day after she learned about it from Jennings on Jan. 3.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau organized the Feb. 22 City Hall press conference to support a pilot program.

“This is not fixing a road, this is a dramatic change,” he said. “It has huge policy ramifications for the city. We have to have a public dialogue.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Friends of Chance David Baker mourn during a Feb. 24 vigil in Portland’s Monument Square. Baker was killed by police Feb. 18; his death has prompted renewed calls for equipping police with body cameras. (Dan D’Ippolito / For The Forecaster)

A Feb. 24 candlelight vigil in Monument Square drew dozens to celebrate the life of Chance David Baker, who was killed by Portland police Feb. 18. (Dan D’Ippolito / For The Forecaster)

Mayor Ethan Strimling listens Feb. 22 in Portland City Hall as City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau expresses support for a pilot program to begin use of body cameras by police officers. (David Harry / The Forecaster)

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.