Discussing cameras, on-camera

The Keene City Council’s finance, organization and personnel committee discussed the use of body cameras for police officers Thursday.

A Keene City Council committee wants to hear more information before acting on a petition calling for city police to use body cameras.

During the finance, organization and personnel committee’s Thursday meeting, held via the videoconferencing platform Zoom, councilors voted unanimously to put the petition on more time. The vote gives staff time to look into the cost of cameras, clear up legal questions and see how similar communities have approached the use of body cameras.

The Change.org petition, launched by a recently formed group called Keene Direct Action, had more than 500 signatures as of Thursday night, and organizers said additional signatures were collected during a recent Central Square protest.

The petition was prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department and the widespread protests against police brutality and racism that followed.

“While [police brutality] is not happening here in Keene as of this point, it could at any time,” Laura Dunfey-Ehrenberg, one of three local women who started the petition, told the committee Thursday. “We’re not expecting that of the Keene Police Department, but we have to be aware of what’s going on throughout our nation and that has to be a concern of ours and of yours, to protect our safety.”

She emphasized that the petition calls for action to be taken as soon as possible. She believes requiring police officers to use body cameras, which record their interactions when they’re on calls, would improve transparency and make it easier to hold officers accountable for their conduct.

“We consider this a public safety emergency,” she said. “We hope [councilors] take it as seriously as we are, and the entire nation is.”

Councilor Terry Clark said the question of equipping city police with body cameras was also raised back in 2015, but failed to move forward. He said that was due in part to legal concerns about the privacy of people who end up on body camera footage who aren’t directly related to police investigations.

Another area of concern, he said, is the cost of the cameras and related systems and software.

Josie Fernandez-Andersen, another of the people behind the petition, said other communities with populations similar in size to Keene spend much less on their police budgets but still equip their officers with body cameras. She gave Bedford as an example.

Benjamin Schiffelbein, a local criminal defense attorney, said police in the nearby towns of Winchester and Hinsdale have body cameras, and dashboard cameras are used in police cruisers in Jaffrey and Chesterfield.

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the costs of cameras have changed since the matter was last reviewed, along with the technology, laws and other areas that that would need to be re-examined.

Police Chief Steven Russo said outfitting officers with body cameras would require the city to pay for the camera system as well as redaction software. He said it would take a lot of legwork to figure out the total cost of implementing body cameras and going over legal questions.

“There’s a lot to it,” he said. “And I think it would be best to be able to do that through a research committee, which we did in 2015 for about six months, and then be able to present a package to the [committee] and full council.”

Clark argued that six months was too long. Instead, he suggested city staff could handle the research, which he said would be more time-efficient.

Councilor Stephen Hooper suggested a middle ground, saying the council needs to act quickly, but not at the cost of a thorough discussion. He said the cameras would be a big change and the city should take as long as it needs to find the right solution.

“I agree with Councilor Clark, we don’t need a blue ribbon committee that’s going to discuss this forever,” Hooper said. “But there needs to be some valid discussion.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter