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Jim Kenyon: Body Cameras Help Police and Public

Published: 9/27/2016 11:30:30 PM
Modified: 9/28/2016 12:20:45 AM

Claremont cops don’t need to worry about touching off public unrest — a la Charlotte, N.C., last week — for not releasing video footage of the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Cody Lafont at his home early Sunday morning.

Claremont police don’t wear body cameras. Or use dashboard cameras in cruisers.

How convenient.

The lack of video means the public is likely stuck with the police account of what happened after an officer or officers (so far, authorities have refused to divulge even that small piece of information) responded to a call at Lafont’s home shortly before 5 a.m. on Sunday.

In light of what’s going on with police nationally, that’s unsettling.

“This is what body cameras are designed to avoid,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. “They create an objective record of what transpired, so we don’t have to rely on people’s memories after a traumatic event like this.”

Having police footage often works to law enforcement’s benefit. Such was the case last year in the fatal shooting of Hagen Esty-Lennon by police in Bath, N.H.

As disturbing as it was to watch the shooting unfold, the video helped the public understand what police were up against when Esty-Lennon, who appeared to be suffering a mental health crisis at the time, ran at two officers with a knife.

More and more police departments across the country are embracing the technology. Roughly 25 percent of the nation’s 17,000 police agencies use body cams, according to a 2015 ACLU report.

In the Upper Valley, Hartford police started using the cameras about two years ago. Hanover has had in-cruiser camera systems since 2002, and will have body cams by November or so.

Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello told me that he expects to have a limited number of body cameras to cover patrol staff by late 2017 or 2018.

Cost is a factor, Mello said. He expects the first-year costs to be a minimum of $15,000.

But it’s not always about money. In many municipalities, police unions hold considerable sway and vehemently oppose body cams. In Boston, the police union has resisted implementing a pilot program.

Since Lebanon already has dashboard cameras, Mello doesn’t expect body cams to be an issue with the officers’ union.

On Monday, Valley News staff writer Jordan Cuddemi interviewed Claremont Police Chief Alex Scott about his department’s decision not to use body cams or dashboard cameras. (I was under the assumption that dashboard cameras had become standard equipment in recent years for law enforcement agencies of any size.)

Cost is part of it, Scott said. But Scott, who has a law degree, said he has unanswered questions about when it’s legal for police to make audio or video recordings. Under New Hampshire law, a person is required to notify the other party before starting a recording device.

Talk about a cop-out.

Plenty of other New Hampshire law enforcement agencies have managed to work through the dilemma. So why can’t Claremont?

In June, Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill that establishes regulations regarding the use of body cams, including when the camera should be activated and for how long the footage must be stored.

The law doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, but there’s nothing stopping police departments from adopting the policies now, said state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston.

I’d be more inclined to accept Scott’s privacy concerns if they were shared by the ACLU.

“Although we at the ACLU generally take a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers,” wrote Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit organization in Washington. “Cameras have the potential be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.”

Cushing now is working on getting matching federal and state funds to help communities pay for body cams. (Costs vary, but the estimates I’ve seen put them at $300 or more apiece. Police departments also must budget for maintenance and data storage costs.)

“Cameras provide real-time evidence about what happened,” said Cushing, who argues that body cams could be a money-saver in the long run by staving off costly lawsuits that allege police wrongdoing.

Equipping cops with body cams won’t fix all the problems associated with the public’s growing mistrust of the people paid to protect them.

Sunday morning’s tragedy in Claremont took me back 10 years to the fatal shooting by Vermont State Police of Joe Fortunati, a 40-year-old mentally ill man camped out in the woods of Corinth. Troopers, dressed in camouflage and armed with assault rifles, said Fortunati pulled a handgun from his waistband in a threatening manner.

I called Lebanon attorney George Spaneas, who represented Fortunati’s family in an unsuccessful federal civil rights lawsuit against Vermont State Police.

Body cams “would have made such a difference in that case,” Spaneas told me.

Beyond providing documentary evidence for legal purposes, a video recording might have helped Fortunati’s parents get peace of mind, Spaneas said. They wouldn’t have been left to wonder, “Why did my son get killed? Is what police did reasonable?”

In 2006, the age of body cams had yet to arrive. Claremont police don’t have that excuse.

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