Privacy, right to know influence South Portland police policy on body cams

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Police Department guidelines for how officers will be expected to use new body cameras walk a fine line between privacy, the public’s right to know, and the need to preserve investigative information.

The cameras will be activated Jan. 20. The department released its policy Tuesday, Jan. 10, and will hold a public forum at police headquarters, 30 Anthoine St., on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m., to introduce the devices to the public and answer questions.

In a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon, the department said the cameras would assist in “enhancing public trust and protecting our officers.”

Body cameras and public access to the footage both “raise issues in terms of privacy for the people that the officers are engaged with and also privacy on the part of the officers, themselves,” department spokesman Lt. Frank Clark said Thursday.

“We want these cameras to work for us and the public, and not work against either party,” he said. “We’re not trying to handcuff the officers, and we’re not trying to impede in an area where there’s truly an expectation of privacy.”

The SPPD will handle requests for body camera footage like a Freedom of Information Act request. If a formal request is made and release of that information won’t compromise the subject of the camera footage, and if there are no other inhibiting factors, it will be filled, Clark said.

But there remains a fair amount of gray area, he said, not to mention that combing through hours of footage to fulfill a request will be tedious and time-consuming.

The four-page department policy, drafted by Police Chief Ed Googins and posted on the city’s website Tuesday, outlines the department’s general guidelines for using body cameras, as well as specifics of how officers must use them and when not to use them, such as during a strip search, while appearing as an officer before a court, or if a victim or witness asks not to be recorded.

Officers are required to activate the body camera during all prisoner transports, K-9 tracks or searches, and “all entries related to high-risk or tactical incidents,” including when an officer is executing a search or arrest warrant, according to the policy.

“Officers should inform anyone who asks, that (the body camera) is in use. Officers should also consider advising belligerent or hostile subjects that they are being recorded, as this may help alter their demeanor and de-escalate the situation,” according to the policy.

The recorded material will be retained by the department for at least 180 days.

Rachel Healy, director of communications and public education for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, on Thursday said enhancing public trust involves more than just the use of body cameras.

“Body cameras have the potential to be a really useful tool for building trust and accountability between police and the communities they serve, but that’s only true if there are policies in place that (allow for) transparency and proper handling of the footage,” Healy said.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU national chapter, in a May 2015 outline of how to approach the use of body cameras from a civil liberties perspective, said, “Although we at the ACLU generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers.”

“The challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability,” Stanley said.

Overall they can be a “win-win, but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public,” he said.

The use of body cameras by law enforcement agencies has proliferated across the country since 2014, following incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, that resulted in the deaths of two black men at the hands of police. The cameras are generally affixed to an officer’s chest to record encounters with the public.

Googins first broached the subject with the City Council in June 2015, when the department applied for about $18,500 in funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance program to supplement the purchase of body cameras for some of the officers.

In April, as part of the city’s capital improvement budget, the department requested additional funding to purchase a total of 24 body cameras, and three transfer stations for data collecting, docking and charging. Just less than $50,000 was taken from the city’s year-end undesignated fund balance to pay for the equipment.

While other departments have discussed using video devices, South Portland will be the first municipality in greater Portland to outfit its officers with body cameras.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

The South Portland Police Department will deploy body cameras Jan. 20.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.