A recent report from the Seacoast Region noted an uptick in the number of police departments implementing body-worn cameras for officers on duty. Police in Barrington and Dover are considering them. Officers in Lee, Milton, Northwood and Strafford already use them, as does the campus force at the University of New Hampshire. Hinsdale began using the cameras years ago.
Body-worn cameras serve two purposes. One, they provide accountability for both officers and members of the public during interactions (and, ideally, then, as a deterrent toward misbehavior). Second, as a record of those interactions.
In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. Mo., in 2014, both of those purposes have taken on heightened importance. Over several years, the perception of police-community relationships in communities across the nation worsened, to the point where police were being targeted and killed in attacks in Dallas and nary a week went by without news of police violence against blacks or others.
Body cameras, which had been in use in some areas already, became a hot topic.
In 2015, then-Police Chief Brian Costa noted in a letter to Keene’s City Council that, while wearing cameras, officers in cities that use them feel they’re protected against false accusations that could lead to lawsuits. Still, while he noted several positives, Costa suggested the move was premature for Keene because the city’s officers typically don’t have an antagonistic relationship with members of the community. That may not always be the case, however.
Current Chief Steven Russo has also been reluctant to call for the use of body cameras, citing not only cost but the minefield of issues relating to the video taken, privacy, storage and right-to-know requests.
But a state law that went into effect in 2017 set out standards for training and use of such equipment, policies for ensuring privacy, and storage and eventual destruction of recordings. The law lays out what types of calls a camera would be used on, and which recordings would be subject to the state’s right-to-know law.
A study of the use of body cameras in Rialto, Calif., over several years found the use of force by officers dropped by 60 percent and complaints against officers fell by a whopping 88 percent. A more widespread study by the Rand Corp. and the University of Cambridge looked at seven police departments of varying sizes over the course of a year, finding the incidence of complaints against officers fell by 93 percent.
For departments under increasing scrutiny and public mistrust, those statistics seem to make the move to cameras worthwhile from a public-relations standpoint alone. As for the cost, in many cases, it might be recouped by the reduction in cost of having to deal with those complaints and/or lawsuits.
As for the storage and retrieval costs, we note technology is helping there; software is available that makes it easy to redact video for release, and good data management techniques can help identify and preserve critical video evidence, while allowing non-critical video to be deleted under data-retention policies.
There will always be questions, but as more answers are being provided, the benefits increasingly seem worth the costs in considering a move toward more accountability on the part of both officers and those with whom they come into contact.