Portland police expect full use of body cameras this fall

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PORTLAND — The pilot program introducing body cameras for use by city police is wrapping up with good results, acting Police Chief Vern Malloch said last week.

“Officers are eager to have these as another tool. There is so much questioning of police now, we are ready to show the public we are doing a good job every day,” Malloch said.

Since April 1, six police officers and two supervisors have been using body cameras. Malloch said the report on the program is not yet completed, but he expects full deployment of cameras this fall.

The city will first seek bidders to supply cameras and other hardware for more than 160 officers. The city allocated $400,000 in the current capital improvements budget for the cameras.

The pilot program was funded through a $26,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant.

The department already has cameras in cruisers, and the body cameras are synchronized with them. Some Taser units also have cameras, but those are being phased out because of cost and the incoming body cameras, Cmdr. James Sweatt said Aug. 31.

Officers equipped with cameras were spread throughout shifts and coverage areas in the city. The policy, found at https://bit.ly/2odmbG6, requires cameras to be activated “at the initiation of any law enforcement encounter with a member of the public,” although if the situation presents a risk to the officer’s life or safety, the camera can be activated “at the first reasonable opportunity to do so.”

Malloch and Sweatt said the policy worked well during the pilot program, but may be tweaked according to how officers work with them at the station.

“The policies will not be changing in terms of citizen engagement,” Sweatt said.

Cameras are not activated during tactical discussions at a scene, in prisons or jails where video recording is not allowed, and during threat assessments and safety planning for victims of domestic violence.

Use of body cameras is also limited in schools and health-care facilities.

The biggest challenge is the data storage and administration, Malloch and Sweatt said.

Malloch said he expects the Police Department will have to add a position to handle the footage, and the department will also need more servers.

Sweatt was not certain how much video footage has been used by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office for prosecutions.

Forwarded video is stored on a cloud server, he said, and video that is not considered evidence will be deleted after 210 days, which is 30 days longer than state rules regarding preservation of materials.

Officers will be trained in groups of 40, Malloch said, adding what was learned from the pilot program will set the template for the larger training.

Sweatt said training has included reminding officers who gesture when speaking that their hands can sometimes block the camera lens.

City Manager Jon Jennings and former Police Chief Michael Sauschuck began discussions on body cameras about two years ago. On Feb. 16, 2017, Jennings said he was looking into funding a pilot program.

About 36 hours later, Police Sgt. Nicholas Goodman shot and killed Chance Baker outside a restaurant on St. John Street. Only days later, Jennings made the request to redirect the grant.

An internal review and an investigation by the state Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese determined Goodman was justified in using deadly force.

At a news conference after the shooting, Sauschuck noted a body camera on Goodman might have had limited effectiveness, since he was stationed behind a car.

Malloch said body cameras are welcomed and needed, although “They are not going to be a panacea and capture everything.”

Attorney J.P. DeGrinney, who has been defending clients in the Portland area for more than 20 years, said he has yet to encounter a case where body camera video was included in evidence.

DeGrinney said he supports camera use, but with reservations about privacy concerns for defendants or those around them when cameras are activated.

The Portland policy allows officers to turn off cameras under some circumstances, including requests by victims once a scene is stable and safe, in homes where officers have entered without a warrant, and where someone may want to anonymously report a crime.

DeGrinney said the cameras are good for clarity.

“It is not uncommon for people to observe the same conduct or fact pattern and take different inferences,” he said.

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

Portland Police Cmdr. James Sweatt said the pilot program for body camera use has not led to any surprising results and will add to department transparency.The docking station for body cameras at Portland Police headquarters will be expanding as a pilot program becomes a full-time deployment. Police said data storage and administration may be the most challenging part of adding cameras to the force.

A pilot program for body camera use by Portland Police should lead to full-time deployment by this fall, acting Police Chief Vern Malloch said last month.

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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.