Police agencies equipping officers with body cameras - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Police agencies equipping officers with body cameras

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The police call -- a mentally ill man with a knife making threats.  And from the moment Police get the assignment, body cameras record the action.

It records how officers handle situations.  From a scenario where force becomes necessary, to how they detain the suspect and get permission before searching his room without a warrant.

Everything recorded is potentially important for the criminal case, or if someone accuses investigators of misconduct. Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen says body cameras are protection for his officers and the public. "We're issuing cameras to every officer, and they are expected to use it when they are encountering somebody that should be recorded," he said.

Every officer in every interaction now caught on camera. It's just the latest expansion of video coverage in Winooski. Officers did test runs with body cameras last year, made more than a decade of dash cam recordings -- and stationary cameras posted all over downtown are monitored in the PD's dispatch center. The department says the video network fights crime and false complaints. "We're a very busy one-square mile. A lot of activity in one square mile with very few officers. I have to maximize their ability to deal with things, and video is one way of doing it," McQueen said.

Fueling Winooski's new body cam investment -- the price dropped from $1,200 to $300 per camera -- and also the Jason Nokes case. The Winooski Corporal is facing criminal charges after shooting an unarmed mentally ill man during a trespassing investigation last year.  A neighbor's cell phone caught the end of the incident on camera, but there is no video of the start of the interaction, how it escalated, or the shooting itself.

"Where we're dealing with people with cognitive disability, demeanor, tone of voice and language is extremely important in assessing the threat," McQueen said. "And unfortunately we did not have that in this case."

McQueen's own internal review exonerated Cpl. Nokes of violating department procedures and recommended body cameras for the department. The Chief thinks they will prevent a future Nokes case, even though he won't say video would have actually cleared him of criminal charges.  "I can't answer that question, because it wasn't my decision to make," he said.

The body cams are raising questions for privacy advocates. "It's the first I know of a department planning to get cameras for all officers," said the Vermont ACLU's Allen Gilbert.

Gilbert sees body cameras as good protection against bad policing, but only if officers are not allowed to turn them on and off, creating a selective view of an encounter. "In fact, if an officer has that option, it could be the cameras are worse than having no cameras whatsoever," he said. "Because what happens is you often end up missing footage that's the most crucial in an incident."

Winooski does have a body camera policy requiring officers to have them on during interactions with the public, but it does not talk about turning them off. "Now if I have a situation where the officers are assigned a camera... officers have an encounter, and they did not record it... then I would have to deal with that from an administrative standpoint," McQueen said.

Winooski Police Sgt. Mike Cram plans to leave the camera on. Not only does it cut the need to take notes at a scene, but he sees it as insurance. His bosses turned to cruiser cam video of one of his traffic stops five years ago after a citizen complaint -- and it cleared him. "And I was polite as could be, and professional, so the complaint went away because there was the unbiased explanation of my actions," Sgt. Cram said.

So what happens to all that video? And who sees it?  It is stored for 90 days and if video is part of a criminal case it is saved for seven years. The Chief can release it to the public following state public records guidelines.

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