If both Barrington and Dover, N.H., ultimately purchase the body cam devices, they'll join the likes of camera-equipped Lee, Milton, Northwood, Strafford and the University of New Hampshire.
(TNS) — There's a growing rank of local police departments in New Hampshire deploying body cameras as more and more agencies across the country implement them to increase transparency.
Barrington looks to be next, if its Town Meeting voters approve the department's budget on Tuesday, March 10. Meanwhile, Dover police support body cams and will launch a formal exploratory study this summer to evaluate whether the costs of the equipment and associated manpower will be feasible for their larger, busy department.
If both Barrington and Dover ultimately purchase the devices, they'll join the likes of camera-equipped Lee, Milton, Northwood, Strafford and the University of New Hampshire, along with a host of departments big and small throughout the United States.
"This is the right thing for this organization to do. Transparency is the biggest thing in the public eye," said Barrington Deputy Police Chief Dan Brooks. "Nationally, we think this is where it is going with law enforcement. We feel they're going to be become a standard piece of equipment. We'd rather have it brought in on our terms, where we can predict where things can go."
Body cams and taser cams are becoming increasingly more prevalent throughout the country due to high-profile cases involving police officers' use of excessive or deadly force.
There have been recent incidents on the Seacoast in which officers have discharged their weapons, some with fatal consequences. While area police officials say cameras provide important accountability for everyone involved in those instances, they say their push for additional transparency is more about general community comfort and relations.
"My community here at UNH comes from all over the world, and as you can imagine they may have interactions with hundreds of different law enforcement agencies in their (home) communities," said UNH Police Chief Paul Dean, whose department is separate from the Durham Police Department. "Taking into consideration they're born in places where things are done very differently than my department, having that transparency and accountability, I felt, was important in having them feel comfortable at the institution."
Area police officials also love how the cameras extend a level of reassurance to small-town patrol officers and investigators who typically fly solo while out on routine calls.
"They know they have that security of the camera backing them up all the time," Strafford Police Chief Michael Richard said, adding that having video evidence of things like traffic stops and disturbances has reduced complaints about officers, simplified the evidentiary process and increased Strafford's overall number of plea deals. "The few complaints we've gotten with our officers over the years, we've asked people to come in and see the video and they don't show up (because they know it exists)."
Barrington, Lee and UNH prefer chest-worn body cams. Lee rolled theirs out over two years ago, while UNH started this past September.
The devices automatically dump their footage wirelessly to the departments' physical or cloud-based servers once they're placed onto their charging cradles inside the station. Gone are the days when departments had to manually upload body cams using USB cables, or hassle with the trunk-mounted VHS recording systems that accompanied cruisers' dashboard-mounted cameras in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"When I started to see the trends nationally with law enforcement accusations, I felt it was time," Lee Police Chief Thomas Dronsfield Jr. said of body cams. Lee also has dash cams that automatically sync with officers' body cams any time their cruiser's blue lights are on. "(The body cams) are working phenomenally. My guys love them. You get some pushback initially ... (but) now they don't want to work without it."
Milton -- one of the first in the Granite State to start using body cams several years ago -- uses both body-worn and head-worn, eyeglass-like devices. As does Northwood.
Strafford intentionally doesn't use body cams, but has cruiser cams and has had taser-mounted cameras since the first day the department got tasers 12 years ago.
To Richard, the key difference between body and taser cams is an important ideological one that explains the reticence or outright opposition some departments and residents have toward police cameras of any kind.
State laws require police cameras to be shut off during sensitive, specially handled calls like sexual assaults. The laws and local policies also have some subjectivity for when officers have the authority to turn their body cams off during other types of calls. Those calls can include when an officer chats with a child inside a private home, among other instances in which a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Taser cams on the other hand only record when an officer, deciding a degree of force is needed, takes the nonlethal weapon out of its belt-worn holster.
"At some point, we record everything and we get a little too close to home for some people," said Richard. "If I knew they would benefit us 100% and we wouldn't get questioned for shutting them off (while) talking to a 5-year-old, I'd be all for body cams. The way things are today, you can't justify (subjective decisions to shut cameras off). It's a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't.'"
Another reason more New Hampshire departments don't use body cams -- perhaps the biggest reason -- is because of the equipment and manpower costs associated with them.
Those costs, area police officials say, also help explain why the Seacoast's smaller towns have thus far led the body cam charge instead of the area's cities like Dover, Rochester and Portsmouth. (Rochester does have cruiser cams, though, just like Lee and Strafford.)
"It's not because we don't want our officers recorded. That couldn't be further from the truth," said Dover Police Chief Bill Breault, whose department serves the Seacoast's largest population city and has 52 sworn officers. "Why we haven't is because the cost has been prohibitive."
On top of buying the cameras and charging docks, Breault said the costs would include significant physical or cloud storage space to handle Dover's 30,000 annual calls to service. He said the costs would also include manpower to archive and prepare videos for prosecution, redact sensitive information, and process the significant number of Right to Know and evidentiary requests the department already receives.
"Most chiefs say, 'It's a great idea, we're not against it, but what does this actually look like?'" said Breault. "Like with everything, you're facing priorities. Is it funding for this, or funding for officers on the street? There are a lot of things in play. One decision has other effects."
Manchester, the state's largest city, bit the proverbial bullet last year and equipped all of its officers with cameras in December. While it's too early for detailed case studies about the results, Seacoast officers say they've heard encouraging anecdotal feedback out of the Queen City.
Portsmouth won't go that route. Port City officials studied body cams last year, but found outfitting 68 officers and the associated storage and manpower costs could run between $427,500 and $699,675 over a five-year contract to lease body cams.
"We felt the amount of money it would take to bring them on would be better spent (in other areas)," said Portsmouth Police Capt. Mark Newport. "In small department ... officers for the most part, they're out there by themselves. Here, we have at least two (or) three officers show up to any serious type of call. There are enough people there that it wasn't 'your word versus somebody else's word.' A lot of smaller departments like to have that reinforcement (with the cameras)."
Barrington Sgt. Amanda Barber is one of the officers who has heavily researched and led the charge for body cams in her town. Barber said she's hopeful voters will approve their body cams because the town's Select Board has stood firmly behind the reasons why the devices would help the rapidly growing Barrington.
"With how far the technology has advanced, it's the right time," Barber said when asked why the Barrington Police Department is now making the push for cameras. Barber specifically cited wireless video upload, high video resolution, cloud storage, encryption and the fact that officers will be able to remotely access the video archives on their smartphones.
As proposed, Barrington would spread out the cost to outfit all 12 of its officers with leased cameras and to store the footage. The funding will annually have to be approved as a part of BPD's technology budget. The first year calls for $13,500, while the following four years call for $8,000, for a total of $45,500. The costs could ultimately be less if Barrington finds it doesn't need the 1.5 terabytes of cloud storage it'll start with, Barber said.
Barber and Brooks said BPD will look to other area departments' policies while crafting their guidelines for the devices. They said that will help them get the best tried-and-tested approaches for the types of cases the town will encounter, hopefully cutting down much of the legally dangerous subjectivity in the process.
"It's extremely complex," said Brooks. "It all comes down to that we work for the citizens and the town Barrington and anyone else who passes through the state. Our goal is to provide the best service we can."
©2020 Portsmouth Herald, N.H. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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