Cops and cameras

Bar Harbor officials last week authorized the purchase of three wearable video cameras for police officers. The cameras will be powerful tools to record the often antisocial and antagonistic comportment of people officers regularly encounter.

The cameras also will create an impartial record of how the officers interact with the public, which can substantiate claims of abuse of power or excessive force in the event that such incidents occur. Conversely, the same recording will also be a powerful tool to vindicate any officer who may be subject to scurrilous accusations.

But buying the cameras is only the beginning of the process. Adopting policies on when and how they will be used, how to guarantee access to the public record created by the cameras and establishing a training program for the officers who will use them still remains to be done.

Last fall, when a pair of young Bar Harbor officers made contact with the then-police chief, who was reported apparently unresponsive in his parked vehicle in Town Hill, the video camera in the cruiser that usually records the view through the windshield was apparently not in operation. Had the camera been turned on, it might have shed valuable light on the events that ultimately led to the chief’s controversial dismissal.

Under Maine law, everyone has the right to make a recording of his or her own interactions with others without notification to the other parties. The surreptitious recording of two or more uninformed individuals is illegal except within the scope of an undercover criminal investigation.

Still, out of fairness, some way needs to be found so that members of the public interacting with officers know when the cameras they are carrying are in use.

Editing on the fly, that is having an officer picking and choosing when to turn a camera on or off, should not be standard practice; otherwise, society runs the risk of the footage being available only to law enforcement’s advantage.

Officers need to be trained so that videos don’t inadvertently record private information, such as driver’s license info, the recording of which could be considered an invasion of privacy. The presence of such recorded information also could be used as an argument against releasing controversial footage to the public.

While conservatives have been early backers of police carrying cameras, there is support on the left as well. The American Civil Liberties Union likes the idea.

“Although we 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,” an ACLU policy statement says.

Nationally, the debate over body-worn cameras has come to the forefront in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed boy in Ferguson, Mo.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police already has created draft policies that may be a good starting point for the local discussion about the proper deployment and use of personal video cameras by police.