Vermont State Police to roll out body cameras following years of discussion
WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As people here and across the country demand greater police accountability, Vermont’s largest police force is finally getting body cameras. With them, comes an updated policy for use and the public’s access to view police videos. Vermont State Police are still working on the specifics of the new policy before they are rolled out closer to the end of the year. Leaders from the ACLU say that policy needs to be specific and robust, and they are calling on lawmakers to enact a policy for body camera usage statewide.
“It’s welcomed by us and it has been for quite some time,” Vermont State Police Capt. Garry Scott said.
It’s been a yearslong debate in Vermont following concerns of the storage costs for all of the footage. A yearlong subscription to a cloud-based storage service will cost around $250,000 per year, likely a new budget item, and an important step for State Police. All footage will be uploaded to the cloud using cell tower data when the camera is connected to its in-cruiser charger.
“It’s about transparency and accountability,” Scott said.
More than 200 troopers at barracks across Vermont will be outfitted with body cameras. They have been sent, but are not in use yet. Cameras will turn on automatically once a trooper activates their police lights. The policy for the cameras is still up in the air, including when troopers can turn them off. State Police have had multiple cameras in cruisers for about 20 years, and leaders within the department say that policy will be updated to reflect the addition of body cameras.
“Too often body cameras, which are supposed to be tools of transparency and accountability, are used selectively too often by law enforcement to shield misconduct,” said James Lyall of the ACLU.
The ACLU says police shouldn’t police themselves, and in general, have shown resistance to transparency and oversight. Another factor is public access to the video. State Police say inspections will be free, according to a directive from Gov. Phil Scott, to all state agencies. It will be available for viewing after it has been redacted, to protect the privacy of people not involved. Per Vermont’s Public Records Act, you have to pay for a copy of any record, including video. But it’s unclear if the state can charge for staff time to redact records. Police say it’s one of many jobs of the records and alarms administrator. The Department of Public Safety is also looking to hire a public records specialist.
“In theory, it seems like you can release the video quickly, but there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be redacted. It comes at a cost and it comes at personnel being able to do that,” Scott said.
Protesters in Burlington rallying against police brutality and systemic change to the system have called for all body camera footage to be released to the public on a regular basis. In 2020, Vermont State Police receive an average of 232 record requests each month, about 5% of those, or around 12 per month, are requests for video.
“The costs of having a transparent and accountable government are far less than the costs that the public bears when the government is not transparent and not accountable," Lyall said.
The ACLU is calling on lawmakers to create a statewide body camera policy to continue the current movement of meaningful police reforms.
Vermont State troopers welcome the new tool for everyone’s benefit.
“Having a camera on us all the time shows the whole situation, it’s getting the whole story,” said Patrol Commander Brandon Doll.
In an executive order, Gov. Phil Scott has called for a statewide body camera policy. The Public Safety Reform Initiative reads in part: “The commissioner of DPS shall work with community representatives, the executive director of Racial Equity and other stakeholders to develop for consideration of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council a statewide model policy on body-worn cameras for law enforcement that addresses activation and de-activation, privacy issues and the release of footage. In addition, the commissioner of DPS is directed to identify the scope of need for body-worn cameras by all Vermont law enforcement agencies.”
The Legislature has yet to enact a statewide policy.
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