Learn who has dashcams or body cams and how they pay for them.

In Maine, body cams and dashcams are keeping police accountable and criminals behind bars.

The woman was too scared to testify against her boyfriend.

He’d beaten her up. Police had been called. He’d been arrested, charged with a felony because her injuries were so severe. 

But months later, in court, she couldn’t bring herself to say he did it.

“She was terrified of him. Terrified of talking about everything that happened that night,” said Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney.

But police had video-recorded the scene’s aftermath. They had recorded her.

The jury saw enough from those recordings, even if the woman didn’t want to tell them. Her boyfriend was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for her assault.

It wasn’t the first time a police video had helped Maloney win a case. And it won’t be the last.

“Particularly in our most serious (domestic violence) cases, where you can actually see the bruises darkening as the victim talks. You can see the bumps growing on her head as she’s speaking. And you can visibly see how upset she is and hear the fear in her voice,” Maloney said.

Video provides a long list of benefits, including better evidence at trial, increased scrutiny of police — particularly anyone prone to using excessive force — and protection for both police and citizens falsely accused of wrongdoing.  

They’re benefits that have a large number of Maine police departments getting into video.

A Sun Journal survey of 72 law enforcement agencies found that a quarter use wearable body cams. Nearly another quarter plan to get them soon or are looking into them.

Well over half of the 72 departments use dashboard cameras in their vehicles or plan to use them soon.

Maloney can list the pros and cons of video. She has concerns about the technology and the cost. But she goes back to that case, the woman assaulted by her boyfriend, and the scene captured on an officer’s body camera. 

“I don’t see that we would have gotten the conviction without that video,” she said. “I believe a woman is alive today and a man is behind bars because of the body cam video. So, yes, it’s worth it. To me, that makes it worth it. “

From VHS tapes to body cams

Dashboard cameras have been widely used around the country for more than 20 years. Mounted inside a police car, they record whatever is going on in front of the vehicle.

“(Mothers Against Drunk Driving) donated a bunch of, at the time, great big cameras that you carry on your shoulder,” said Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police. “They were gigantic, like a boom box. They donated a bunch of those and we made some mounts and we mounted them between the seats so we could start videotaping our traffic stops.”

Over the years, manufacturers made the cameras smaller and lighter and stuffed them with technology. Today’s dashcams can automatically start recording as soon as the car’s blue lights flare to life. They can take high-definition video of scenes inside or outside the car, live-stream that video and record audio from a few hundred feet away when the officer is wearing a small recording microphone. The cameras can also wirelessly connect to a server, uploading audio and video into storage as soon as the officer pulls into the police station. 

Dashcam systems typically cost between $4,000 and $6,000 each.

As the technology improved — and as federal agencies started offering dashcam grants to police departments in the early 2000s after a slate of racial profiling accusations and other complaints — the cameras’ popularity increased. According to federal statistics, 55 percent of local police departments used dashcams in 2003. That jumped to 61 percent in 2007, the latest data available.

In recent years, body cams have become the technology of interest. They’re about the size of a pager and light enough to be worn on a lanyard around the neck or mounted on the chest of an officer’s shirt. Like dashcams, body cams can take HD video and record audio, but they’re portable, unobtrusive and sometimes unnoticeable on an officer’s uniform.

And they’re cheaper. Body cams can cost $100 for basic models to several hundred dollars for more advanced systems. 

In the wake of the recent Baltimore riots over the death of a man in police custody and amid growing concerns over excessive force by police, the Department of Justice last week announced plans to spend $20 million to help local and tribal law enforcement buy and evaluate body cams. That pilot program is part of a three-year, $75 million Obama administration proposal to buy 50,000 of the cameras.

Some departments in Maine have expressed interest in the grant. Others don’t need to. They already have body cams. Or dashcams. Or both.

The Sun Journal surveyed all 152 law enforcement agencies in Maine about their use of cameras. Seventy-two departments — just under half — responded by noon Friday.

Just over 50 percent want or are considering body cams, while 65 percent have, want or are considering dashcams. Fifteen percent are using both.

Department size or location doesn’t seem to matter much when it comes to video. Maine State Police has dashcams for its 300 officers; the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office has dashcams for its 17. The National Park Service has body cams, and so does the little Penobscot County town of Dexter.

Most used grants to pay for the cameras. Some paid for them out of their own budgets.

‘How could anybody fight that?’

The cameras quickly paid off for one officer in the Somerset County town of Fairfield.

Police there recently got their 10 body cams — $140 each — through a federal grant. Last month, the department made it mandatory to wear them.

Soon after, an officer was accused of being threatening and coercive during a traffic stop and arrest.

“The entire incident was on video, and that officer was cleared completely,” said Fairfield Chief Thomas Gould. “The thing that was nice for us was that it didn’t require a lot of time. We could review the video, do a brief interview with the officer involved and see that what was stated to have occurred didn’t occur.”

Other departments have had similar experiences with both dashcams and body cams. They say it’s one of the best things about video: exonerating officers accused of doing something wrong.

At the Maine State Police, most complaints allege a trooper has been rude.

“I’m going to say nine times out of 10, when we look at the trooper’s video, the trooper wasn’t rude,” Williams said. “He may not have been overly friendly, but he wasn’t rude. There wasn’t any misconduct or violation or they didn’t commit any crime. And probably, I’m going to say 30 or 40 percent of the time, maybe even more, we can look at the video and say, ‘Ah! There’s the problem. It’s the violator.’ They were rude. They were snappy. They said something inappropriate. They set the whole tone.”

In rare instances, the allegations are so egregious that the accuser is charged with making a false complaint. In recent years that’s happened with the Maine State Police at least twice. 

One person claimed a trooper took a $100 bribe not to write a ticket. Another said a trooper used a racial slur.

Video proved them both wrong.

“So they’ve been very handy in protecting police officers against false allegations,” Williams said.

Video has been just as handy in proving allegations true. Chiefs said they appreciate that aspect of video, too.

“The officer was rude or the officer should have done something different or better. When we get those, we follow our personnel investigative rules and take action, whether it’s counseling or formal discipline,” Williams said. “They show what happened, regardless of who was right or wrong, because the camera doesn’t care.”

Police chiefs and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine believe that video ultimately helps both sides. Officers feel safer when their actions are on tape; citizens feel safer when an officer is being recorded. 

“When I’ve arrested females, they’ve asked to leave the (dashcam) recorder on,” said Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson. “If I arrest somebody in Livermore, the route to Auburn is a long way. I used to leave the camera on so there could be no accusations against me.”

Police and prosecutors say video has also been invaluable as evidence. 

In 2008, an Auburn police dashcam recorded Bartolo Ford of Lisbon as he rammed a police officer’s car with a dump truck during a high-speed chase. He was convicted of attempted murder.

Last Tuesday, state police say, a Portland man assaulted a trooper during a traffic stop on I-295 in Gardner, ramming his shoulder into the trooper and sending him into the middle of the highway, where they wrestled until other drivers stopped to help. The incident was caught on the trooper’s dashcam.

“How could anybody fight that?” Williams said.

Police say video has been particularly helpful in domestic violence cases and in drunk driving arrests, when video shows a suspect weaving over the centerline or stumbling and slurring during a sobriety test.

“There’s no disputing it,” Samson said. “If there’s any question about did something occur or didn’t it, well, watch the video.”

Problems

But while police, prosecutors and activists like dashcams and body cams, there are problems, too.

One drawback: cost.

Some police departments get grants to pay for cameras, but not all do. And cameras don’t last long.

“Those systems have a four- to five-year lifespan. So when it came due to replace the system, that’s when local funding steps in,” said Auburn Deputy Chief Jason Moen.

His department spent $100,000 of local taxpayer money on a 13-car system, replacing older cameras that had been purchased through a Homeland Security grant. 

Even when departments do get grants, there are other costs to consider. Like installation.

Dexter police got two dashcams through a federal grant. But the small-town police department hasn’t been able to afford the $500 to $700 it would cost to put them in the cars, so the cameras have been sitting unused.

“I have a tough budget,” said Chief Kevin Wintle.

He hopes the money will be available in the new budget that starts this summer. Body cams are cheaper and don’t require installation, but they do share another cost with dash cams: storage. 

That can amount to thousands of dollars a year.

“What we found is you’ve got to look at the total package,” said Rockland Police Chief Bruce Boucher, whose department has had body cams since 2010. “Not only do you have the front-end costs, but you also have the back-end costs. And the back-end costs are going to be continuously reoccurring.”

Storage, even without the cost, is another problem. Some departments upload video onto their own servers or a server owned by a data storage company. Some use cloud storage on the Internet. Others cobble together a system of DVDs and thumb drives and external hard drives.

Video just takes up too much space.

“The officers pretty much turn (the body cam) on when they feel it’s proper, but if the parameters come down that an officer is going to have to have it on for a full 10-hour shift, you’re talking 40 hours of video every week, times how many officers, times how long?” Boucher said. “That’s huge. Huge.”

His department initially uploaded its body cam video to a network computer, but  its memory filled too fast. A second standalone machine filled in less than a month. Rockland officers now store their video on a micro SD card and save it to DVD.

“They’re responsible for the storage,” Boucher said. “We’re not doing it, just simply because right now we do not have the capabilities of storing that much video.”

Once video is stored, it may have to be accessed for court. Which can also be a problem.

“Essentially, it turns us into a multimedia publishing house, and we’re not designed to mass produce video recordings,” said Andrew Robinson, the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

As dashcams and body cams become more popular, police increasingly record the scene, witnesses, victims and the accused — sometimes creating half a dozen videos for one case. Police have to burn them all to DVDs for prosecutors. Prosecutors have to burn them for the court and defense lawyers.

“We do approximately 6,000 cases (a year) in Androscoggin County in alone. So if you apply that to every case, all of a sudden the demands on the office become so much greater that it’s almost unbearable,” Robinson said.

He and other district attorneys in Maine are working on a solution: secured cloud storage, possibly with online streaming similar to Netflix. Once uploaded by police, prosecutors and defense lawyers would be able to watch the video, no DVD required.

But the system will cost money. And right now it’s only under discussion.  

Just as no one has figured out the perfect solution for storage, no one has found the perfect policy to govern police video.

When should police record? What’s done with that video? Should people be told they’re being recorded? What happens if the video captures someone not involved in the case? What should the officer do if a child is involved?

Some departments have a policy tailored to their community. Some are working off templates provided by other departments or organizations. Some are using dashcam policies for body cams, even though body cams go where dashcams can’t.

Some have no policy at all.

The ACLU of Maine supports police video, calling it “an incredibly important tool” for police accountability, but the group is also concerned about the lack of policies and potential intrusion into people’s privacy. 

For example, no one disputes an officer has the right to record a fight on the street, but there’s no clear answer about filming inside a private home. 

“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the Maine ACLU.

Police agree. The Maine Chiefs of Police Association is planning to craft a model policy that Maine departments can use as a template. But a policy likely won’t be ready for months because the group is just gathering information about body cams now.

“I wanted it out yesterday,” said Executive Director Robert Schwartz. 

Once police get past all the other problems — cost, storage, policies, privacy concerns — there’s the camera evidence itself to deal with.

Video is good, but it only shows what the camera is pointed at. And sometimes that’s only part of the story.

“The officer has five senses to use,” said Williams with the Maine State Police. “They can hear what was going on around them. They can see that there’s somebody running toward them to the left that isn’t on the camera. Or if their body is facing one way and the action is to the left or the right of them, that’s never seen on the camera, so that leaves this huge perception with the public, ‘Oh, why didn’t they record it?’ Or, ‘Police used deadly force for X reason, but when I look at the video I didn’t see that.'”

Some chiefs say that can be a problem in court, particularly if an officer testifies to something not shown on the video.

“People believe what they see,” Williams said.

But despite the drawbacks, police chiefs, prosecutors and the ACLU say they like the trend toward video.

Both police and citizens tend to act better when they know their behavior is being recorded, they say. And when something does happen, there’s an opportunity to capture it objectively. 

No one said they’d like to go back to the days before dashcams and body cams.

“Everything’s a balance,” said Maloney, the DA. “There’s always reasons on one side to do things and there’s always reasons not to and you have to balance them beside what’s the best result.”

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On April 21, the Sun Journal emailed a 10-question survey to all law enforcement departments in Maine. The survey sought information about the departments’ use of dashcams and body cameras, the cost of the equipment and how the video and audio recordings are stored. We also asked police chiefs what benefit they see in using cameras.

Just under half of the 152 departments responded; those responses are now displayed in an online database prepared by the Sun Journal, including the number of cameras each department uses, the cost and comments about their use. To view the database, go to: SunJournal.com/CopCams


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