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Jim Kenyon: Norwich turning a blind eye to lack of police body cameras

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/3/2021 9:33:48 PM
Modified: 4/3/2021 9:33:51 PM

In its infinite wisdom, the Norwich Selectboard has decided — for the time being — against equipping the town’s police officers with body cameras.

Talk about a lack of vision.

Body cameras are an important tool in the national drive to make law enforcement more accountable and transparent.

Communities — and states — that fail to equip their police officers with body cameras are “really not being responsible,” said George Ostler, a criminal defense lawyer for nearly 40 years whose office is in Norwich.

“In the Upper Valley, we have two good models” of how body cameras can and should work, he said. “Both Hanover and Lebanon police have excellent systems.”

On Wednesday, a 40-year-old Claremont man was shot and killed by a New Hampshire State Police SWAT team. Friends of Jeffrey Ely say they had grown concerned about his mental health following recent posts he had written online.

Ely, who had barricaded himself in a shuttered industrial building, exchanged gunfire with six troopers, according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating the shooting. None of the troopers were wearing body cameras.

The Upper Valley’s latest police shooting took me back to Dec. 23, 2017, when a New Hampshire state trooper, who wasn’t wearing a body camera, shot and killed 26-year-old Jesse Champney after chasing him through a snow-covered field in Canaan.

A state investigation determined the trooper’s use of deadly force was legally justified. Then-Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, who recently was appointed to the state Supreme Court, acknowledged, however, that “digital evidence would have helped” the investigation.

But the Norwich Selectboard still doesn’t think body cameras for its three police officers and chief are necessary. “I trust our police department,” Selectboard member Robert Gere, who was elected last year, said at the board’s March 24 meeting. “I trust our officers to exercise their responsibilities well.”

Trust — or lack thereof — in how cops perform their duties isn’t the main issue. It’s more about getting a better picture of what went down during an encounter. Video footage is “not always bad for police and always good for defendants,” Ostler said. “It’s just accurate information. Everybody benefits.”

In Norwich, the Selectboard seems to be taking its cues from a half-dozen residents who wrote or spoke up at the March 24 video board meeting.

Some of the residents had privacy and surveillance concerns. Others were worried about the cost of storing data and upgrading equipment in the future. Opponents also pointed to national studies that show body cameras have not improved police behavior.

The five board members and the residents who spoke at the board meeting have one thing in common: All are white.

I called Ed Taylor, director of community engagement with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, to get his reaction to Norwich’s decision.

“I’m disappointed,” said Taylor, who is Black. “Body cameras make police more accountable.”

The 24-year-old Taylor, who lives in Hanover, is still mindful of what his mother told him as a teenager. Taylor, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was visiting family in Georgia with his mother when he was harassed by two strangers. Taylor called police, but the officers who responded didn’t seem interested in hearing from him.

With his mother watching nearby, Taylor walked away in disgust. “Edward, please,” she later reminded him. “You never turn your back on a police officer.”

Taylor spent last week following former police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial for the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Along with footage from bystanders’ smartphones, prosecutors showed about 20 minutes of video captured at the scene on cops’ body cameras.

“If there wasn’t any footage” there wouldn’t be a trial, Taylor hypothesized. “When it comes to Black people seeking justice in this country, we know how it works.”

In reaching its decision, the Norwich Selectboard was able to find covering.

In October, then-Police Chief Jennifer Frank wrote to the Hanover-based Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, seeking $30,000 to help pay for body cameras and replace the dashboard cameras in the town’s cruisers. The dashboard cameras, handed down from another Vermont police department, are nearing the end of their life span, Town Manager Herb Durfee said.

Durfee, who supports the use of body cameras, was aware of Frank’s request, but the board didn’t learn about it until February — after the Byrne Foundation had sent a check for $30,000.

The total cost of the body and cruiser cameras was estimated at $40,000, leaving the town to come up with the remainder.

Returning the money to the Byrne Foundation was the right move. A town as wealthy as Norwich shouldn’t be hitting up a private foundation. A “sleepy little town,” as Gere described it at the meeting, with a not-so-sleepy $600,000 annual police budget should have no problem making a few cuts to pay for cameras.

The board hasn’t totally ruled out body cameras, Chairman Roger Arnold told me. “We haven’t had a deliberative conversation about all the issues,” he said.

In a March 19 memo to town officials, Arnold argued that neither the town nor the state have established policies that “address the concerns of key advocacy groups such as the ACLU.” While supporting the use of body cameras, the ACLU of Vermont advocates for policies that “adequately protect privacy, assure accountability, and allow transparency,” its website states.

I don’t doubt that some Norwich board members — Arnold, in particular — support police reform. But rejecting a tool that increases the odds of police being held accountable for their actions isn’t progress.

With everything that’s happening nationally and locally, now isn’t the time to be camera-shy.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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