Body cameras slowly entering N.H. law enforcement

  • A look at the body camera docking station at the Weare Police Department, where data is collected and stored. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • Weare police Officer Scott Knox demonstrates how to use a body worn camera outside the police department. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • In Weare, body-worn cameras have become a part of the daily uniform for officers since the department adopted a policy in 2014. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/17/2016 8:15:18 PM

It has been two years, nearly to the day, since police officers in Weare began using body cameras, and department and town officials agree the policy has had a positive effect on the department and its reputation.

But while the technology has been embraced by officers in Weare – one patrol officer said he feels “more pro tected” – the majority of departments across the state have been slow to adopt use of the devices, typically citing the cost of equipment and data management.

Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill at the end of June that establishes regulations for all departments, including when the camera should be activated and for how long the footage must be stored. The bill found bipartisan support early in its drafting, said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, who co-sponsored the bill with Kingston Republican Rep. David Welch.

“All the data I ran tells me it’s not an expense, but an investment that pays for itself,” Cushing said, such as saving money on a potential lawsuit. “I think most people in law enforcement think it’s a good framework.”

Northwood police Chief Glen Drolet, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, was among those who helped craft the bill with legislators. His department was one of the first in the state to create a body camera policy and integrate the cameras as part of officers’ daily routines.

Although Drolet said the cameras have been welcomed in Northwood, it may not work in every department.

“I know it’s the best thing for our department,” Drolet said. “But I don’t know what Nashua or departments in the North Country are dealing with on a daily basis. . . . It may not be a fit for whatever reason.”

At least one of the reasons is money. Costs for equipment and data storage can run from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 just for one camera. Police in Weare recently bought two new Taser body cameras at a total cost of about $1,500. In Dunbarton, where the cameras were first introduced last September, the department spent about $300 on each unit for three officers.

Cushing would like to eventually see every officer equipped with a body camera, but does not think a statewide requirement is feasible or necessary. It would cost an estimated $472,400 to purchase body cameras for the more than 400 uniformed state troopers in New Hampshire, with an additional $250,000 cost annually, according to previous reports.

“I don’t think it can be mandated,” Cushing said, adding it may be more appropriate to establish a grant or a matching grant program to curb the cost for local communities.

Only about 10 police departments in the state are employing body cameras, Drolet said, but that number will likely increase as departments learn more about the technology.

New Hampshire officers interviewed for this story were generally in favor of wearing body cameras, but elsewhere, police have shown a clear resistance to accepting the new technology. In Boston, a body camera pilot program hit a snag with union negotiations, and no officers volunteered to test the equipment.

Dunbarton police Chief Dan Sklut isn’t opposed to the use of body cameras, but it wasn’t his idea to bring them into the department.

“We have cameras because my officers asked for them,” he said. “It’s not something I sought or wanted. . . . There are unintended consequences to having cameras, but there is accountability on both sides and I do see a lot of value in that. The cameras still don’t always show you the whole picture.”

Body camera footage is not perfect evidence, but officers and administrators generally agreed it improves the officer’s ability to fill out a detailed report.

“I would say it is invaluable evidence,” said Weare police Lt. Frank Hebert. “What do they say, ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words?’ . . . Given the totality of the circumstances, I’d say a video is worth a million words, for sure.”

Weare’s body camera policy has stood out among New Hampshire departments. It was picked up by the U.S. Department of Justice and shared as a resource for other departments to model.

“We remain proud to be utilizing these and we are really right up in the forefront of where I think this is going,” Hebert said. “ ‘Body-worn cameras’: We have really painted the walls with those three words. It offers the officers peace of mind.”

The new law, set to take effect Jan. 1, establishes guidelines around body camera use that may already be included in local department policies. But the bill also makes clear how long footage is expected to be stored before it can be overwritten or deleted, giving police departments the ability to purge their data storage system and lower associated costs.

Until then, the New Hampshire Municipal Association is recommending police departments retain their body camera footage under the disposition of municipal records statute, which requires records to be maintained for three to five years.

The bill states video can be overwritten or deleted no sooner than 30 days or later than 180 days after the recording, unless the footage is evidence in a criminal case, shows use of deadly force by an officer, or is pertinent to a complaint.

In cases of officer misconduct or an officer-involved shooting, the officer may be limited or restricted from viewing the footage, under the new law. But the additional pressure of conducting police work on camera hasn’t hindered the program in Dunbarton or Weare.

“I can’t imagine being on patrol or responding to a call without it now,” said Dunbarton police Sgt. Christopher Remillard.

Weare police Officer Scott Knox agreed.

“I encourage it,” he said. “It’s increased safety for myself and the public. . . . It’s just something new to remember; tapping the button and informing the person that they are being recorded.”

Cushing considers Weare to be one of the state’s police departments on the “cutting edge of using body cameras.” The town has experienced some tumultuous periods of strained relations with the public, especially after a botched drug bust in 2013 that ended with the fatal shooting of Alex Cora DeJesus.

Three years later and under new leadership, the department has been working to regain the trust of its community.

Weare was the target of numerous lawsuits from people complaining about police conduct. Some of the lawsuits were from former officers themselves. Implementing body cameras was a way to foster accountability and build confidence within the community, Cushing said.

Weare Selectman Tom Clow said the department has made strides to improve its reputation, but body cameras are only one part of it. The greater accomplishment, Clow said, was receiving its accreditation last year from the Commission for Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, also known as CALEA.

Nonetheless, Clow is pleased the department has incorporated body cameras into its policing.

“It’s become a nationwide issue and – with Boston scrambling for volunteers – for us to go ahead and already have officers in favor of it, it’s very good,” Clow said. “I’m a big supporter of it. It takes a lot of question marks away with the public.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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