South Portland police could get body cameras

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The Police Department could soon be outfitting officers with body cameras and stun guns.

Funding for the equipment is included in City Manager Jim Gailey’s $8.3 million capital improvement project budget, presented Monday night in a City Council workshop.

The fiscal 2017 budget includes state and national grants, reserve accounts, bonds and the operating budget. 

The Police Department has requested 24 body cameras and three transfer stations, which would allow for data collecting, docking and charging, at a cost of more than $68,000. More than $18,000 would come from grants, while the remainder of nearly $50,000 will be pulled from the year-end undesignated fund balance.

The department first broached the possibility of purchasing body cameras with the council last June, in the wake of incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, that resulted in the deaths of two black men at the hands of police.

Because there’s no “regulatory oversight for body cameras in the state of Maine,” neither the Maine State Police nor the Department of Public Safety keeps an inventory of departments that use body cameras across the state, state police Major Brian Scott said Tuesday morning.

Last June, Public Information Officer Steve McCausland, who wasn’t available Tuesday, estimated fewer than a dozen departments across Maine use the cameras. 

The body cameras that will be worn by South Portland police officers have a lifespan of five to 10 years, Gailey said. 

There has also been a heightened focus on the use of Tasers as an alternative, when appropriate, to the potential deadly use of firearms by police officers.

The department already uses Tasers, but it doesn’t have enough to outfit each officer, Police Chief Ed Googins said. Officers on patrol at night typically carry Tasers, he said, but officers on duty around town at places like the Maine Mall must take turns carrying them. 

The request of nearly $40,000, which will be taken from the undesignated fund balance, will bridge the gap and equip each officer with a Taser at all times, Googins said. 

On an annual basis, South Portland officers typically deploy Tasers about six times a year, he told councilors, and they are a “very, very effective tool.” Each officer should carry a Taser every hour of every work day, Googins said.

Tasers, which debilitate a victim in a non-lethal way by sending electroshocks through their body, are only deployed when officers are taking someone into custody, Googins said.

While one of their uses is to provide an alternative to lethal force, another is to provide restraint when officers come up against “active physical resistance,” he said. 

Councilor Eben Rose asked Googins if he expects the number of deployments to increase. Googins said not necessarily, but if needed, “every officer will have that option.”

Other noteworthy line items in the CIP budget include $60,000 to fund  preliminary engineering work for a possible pedestrian bridge over the intersection of Waterman Drive, Broadway and the Casco Bay Bridge.

The city would fund $6,000 through reserves from the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District, but the remaining $54,000 would have to be sought through grants. 

City staff and residents have been discussing the possibility of a bridge over one of the busiest intersections in the city for at least a year. A feasibility study and charrette has already been conducted; the next stage would begin by looking at bridge designs and how they would fit into the intersection, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said Tuesday morning. 

But neither the project nor the next phase of engineering work is a sure thing, Haeuser said, largely because the project – which could cost between $1.5 and $3 million – is contingent on funding with non-city money.

“This is a kind of project that’s both a need, but also an amenity,” Haeuser said. There are also aesthetic and branding advantages to having a well-designed, heightened walkway at the entrance of the city, he said, that arguably fit with the city’s Economic Development Plan. 

The idea of a pedestrian bridge was brought to staff by residents concerned about the time it takes and the dangers of crossing the often-congested intersection.

“To a certain extent, this will happen if people in the community are interested and want it and (are) maybe willing to find ways to help out (financially),” Haeuser said. 

At this point, he added, “we’re certainly not locking the city into any major expenditure of funds.”

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

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.