SOUTH PORTLAND — The Police Department plans to use approximately $18,500 in grant money to help purchase body cameras for officers.
The City Council approved the department’s grant application at its June 1 meeting.
The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, provided by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, would be available this fall if the application is successful. The department has received money from the program each time it has applied in the past.
The department’s application is being submitted in conjunction with the Portland Police Department and the Westbrook Police Department.
Although the exact number of Maine departments that use body cameras is not known, Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said he estimates “very few … probably a dozen or less,” use them. Maine State Police do not use them, McCausland said.
The decision to seek funds for body cameras came after a committee to explore the use of the cameras was formed last fall by Police Chief Edward Googins, in the wake of confrontations in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, where the use of force by police officers resulted in the deaths of two black men.
These instances, which Googins in a May 19 memo to City Manager Jim Gailey referred to as “a series of high-profile events throughout the country that had police officers in conflict with the communities they serve,” provided a necessary opportunity for the department to “explore the feasibility of establishing a body camera program,” the chief said.
The committee concluded the technology should be pursued.
Earlier this year, members of the department participated in a trial run with the body cameras, Googins told the council on Monday. Their functionality and the ancillary technological support was lacking, Googins said; the department decided to wait for the next iteration, which will likely premiere in a year.
The hope is to find body cameras that align with the department’s current WatchGuard technology, “instead of building another system,” Googins said.
While the cost of implementing the body cameras isn’t definitive, Googins said he estimates anywhere from $50,000-$100,000.
“I see this (grant) funding as a great way to start putting money aside to do that,” he said.
Councilor Claude Morgan said the use of cameras will “provide accountability for everybody.”
“This is the national effort to address the national problem, and problem with perception,” Morgan said. “I think the sooner we hook up, the better off we are as a community.”
Councilor Tom Blake also supported the addition of body cameras, but said it isn’t a solution to the systemic problem.
“First and foremost, this isn’t an answer,” Blake said. “The answer is education, training, sensitivity training and understanding from our law enforcement.
“I think it’s very important that we understand what’s causing the problems,” and buying cameras isn’t going to resolve those problems, he said, “it’s only going to prove points.”
Googins said the department has a “very good relationship with our community,” and that one of the important components of body cameras is “documentation of the event.”
“It’s not necessarily just about catching somebody do something wrong,” Googins said, “but actually having an accurate, appropriate record of what did transpire.”