More New Hampshire police will soon wear body cams

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Trooper Justin Wagner of the Vermont State Police wears a new body camera at the Williston, Vt., Barracks on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (Vermont State Police – Adam Silverman)

A plan to expand the use of body and dashboard cameras by law enforcement at all levels in New Hampshire is advancing with bipartisan support and minimal public opposition, despite the fact that some police leaders say the cameras aren’t necessary.

If bills now being debated in the House and Senate become law, the use of video technology will expand from a handful of local police departments to include all New Hampshire state troopers, with a $1 million fund established to help local police departments acquire the technology as well.

The body-cam initiative is moving on so many tracks, it can be hard to keep up. The state Senate has held hearings on a bill that, among other things, would establish a body-worn and dashboard camera fund to help police departments that want to adopt the technology. The House is debating a bill that would make body cameras mandatory.

The Department of Safety in December issued a request for proposals from companies that can provide in-vehicle cameras and body-worn cameras for approximately 259 state troopers, along with all the ancillary data storage and management services. The deadline for those proposals was initially Feb. 26, but was recently changed to March 18.

Due to a number of questions that required revision of some proposals, the due date was extended two weeks,” according to Paul Raymond, spokesman for the Department of Safety. Finalists will be invited to make a video pitch in April, with a contract headed for the governor and Executive Council in early June. All large state contracts must be approved by the five-member council.

In his Feb. 11 budget address, Gov. Chris Sununu said the $1 million matching fund for local police departments would enable them to adopt the camera technology in a 50-50 cost split with the state. The use of video recordings by police was recommended by Sununu’s Commission on Law Enforcement, Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT), appointed last summer in the wake of national protests over systemic racism in policing.

“These transformative, sweeping changes came directly from our LEACT Commission,” Sununu said. “And they build on the unanimous recommendations of that group. Here, in New Hampshire, we made sure the important awareness raised last summer wasn’t only listened to but followed through on.”

A long time coming

It was March 3, 1991, just over 30 years ago, that an uninvolved third party videotaped the police beating of Rodney King from the balcony of his Los Angeles apartment and sent the film to a local TV station.

“The Rodney King video was the Jackie Robinson of police videos,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told The New York Times in a  2020 interview, as the infamous Sony camcorder wielded during the event went up for auction. 

Despite the video evidence, a jury acquitted all four officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force.

In the three decades since, many more videos of violent, sometimes fatal, interactions with law enforcement have led to criminal charges against police, but very few convictions. That hasn’t slowed the growing public demand for police to be outfitted with body cameras. That call only intensified after the events of last summer, including the videotaped killing of George Floyd.

Some local departments like Hollis and Hanover have been using body cameras for years. Those chiefs say they wouldn’t want to operate without them. The cameras not only enhance public confidence in police transparency but also protect officers from false accusations, they say.

But that attitude is far from universal. Many agencies, including the state police, have long opposed body cameras, citing the high cost of implementation, storage and retrieval. When the idea was debated before the Portsmouth Police Commission in 2019, the police union argued that introducing body cameras would suggest widespread distrust of police and the plan was abandoned.

The New Hampshire Police Departments that use body cameras include Manchester, Barrington, Dover, Goffstown, Lee, Littleton, Milton, Northwood, Strafford, Laconia and Rochester.

State police take the lead

Local jurisdictions will most likely be left to decide whether to take advantage of the state’s matching fund and join those communities, unless the House bill making body cameras mandatory becomes law — an unlikely prospect given legislative barriers to unfunded mandates. The state police, despite past opposition, have no choice, however. They work under orders from Sununu, subject to legislative review.

State police had been working to introduce dash-mounted cameras but have now added body cameras to the mix in reaction to the LEACT recommendations and Sununu’s directive, according to Department of Safety Commissioner Bob Quinn.

“We’ve got a very robust team here that’s looking at it to make sure the plan is comprehensive and can be administered properly, and we are working very hard on it,” he said in a recent interview. 

Implementing cameras is complicated, Quinn said. 

“We understand what the deadlines are, but it’s not just purchasing the cameras. There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes on at the back end as well. We are a fairly large organization, and a lot has to be done to make sure everything can be downloaded, stored and what the access points will be,” he said, noting that Assistant Commissioner Rick Bailey is spearheading the project at the agency.

“We are moving forward to implement fairly quickly,” said Quinn. “We want to make sure we get it right.”

Impact in dispute

Whether the cameras will have the desired effect on police conduct remains to be seen. There’s no consensus among police or local officials, and research on the topic is mixed.

The legislative staff analysis of the Senate bill establishing the body-worn and dashboard camera fund suggests much of the benefit would accrue to defendants. According to the analysis, increased use of dash or body cameras may benefit individual defendants on a case-by-case basis, but is not likely to result in increased arrests or prosecutions brought by the state. 

Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury, whose department has dash-cams, is one of the more vocal opponents of body-cams.

“I looked into BWCs (body-worn cameras). I decided not to pursue it,” he told the LEACT commission. “The cost to purchase was not the issue; they are affordable to buy. I had concerns about the cost for data storage, which is more than buying them.”

Another cost, according to Shagoury, is the time to administer the program: “If we copy a video it may need real-time redaction. If there is a glitch, someone has to call support and work with them to get it back up and running. We recently had to spend quite a bit of time working with support for our cruiser videos.” he said.

A 2018 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found wide variations in the cost of hardware and data storage. On average, the cost of body-worn cameras is less than $5,000 per year, per department, the study found. However, it can quickly get higher than that. 

 “We found that for most agencies, the costs of BWCs [body-worn cameras] are quite low,” the survey authors wrote. “However, the costs are low because most police departments either have a small number of officers, or they are only partially deploying BWCs to some, not all, of their officers. BWC costs run into millions of dollars in large agencies.”

The report uses an example from Mesa, Arizona, to demonstrate costs. The department purchased 330 at $120 each, spending $39,600 to equip 44% of officers. The annual cost of maintenance and data storage are bundled together in a per-camera cost of $1,147; and the cost of administrative staff to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests is $931 per camera, giving an annual total cost of $2,198 per camera. 

Everyone will have a better idea of what a combined dashboard and body camera program will cost in New Hampshire when the Executive Council sees the proposed contract for the State Police, some time this summer. 

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis, immediate past president of the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police, is an unabashed supporter of video technology. The Upper Valley town has had a body-cam program since 2018 and in-car cameras for more than 10 years.

“It may take storage, extra personnel for right-to-know request, technology that has to be taken care of, and you have to send it off for repair,” Dennis said. “It’s a lot of work, but I think that’s where each community has to decide. This is one of those things where frank conversations will have to come at the community level. If they want this it will come at a cost.”

Hollis was one of the first police departments in the state to adopt body cameras in 2016. Chief Joseph Hoebeke, first vice president for the chief’s association, told state Senators in February that the technology helps ensure transparency.

“I would not operate an agency without them in the current climate,” he said. “It is a different time for policing and the cameras help to build trust and legitimacy for our agencies.”

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Dave Solomon for Granite State News Collaborative

Dave Solomon is a freelance reporter.