Vermont’s largest police force is looking to outfit its troopers with body cameras. The move comes after criminal-justice reform advocates nationwide have issued calls for the use of the recording devices. But body cams for Vermont State Police could add significant new expenses to a cash-strapped agency.
Nearly one year ago today, the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old man by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national debate over law enforcement. The incident prompted calls to outfit officers with body cameras, lest the next controversy go unrecorded. And Vermont’s largest police force is about to take the leap.
“We’ve always had a desire to be as open and transparent as possible, and I think body cameras will help us take that next step,” says Major William Sheets with the Vermont State Police.
The Vermont Department of Public Safety recently started shopping for body-worn camera units. Sheets says the timing of the move has more to do with expiring warranties on the agency’s existing dash-cam systems than it does with the national conversation about criminal-justice reform.
“But certainly we are mindful that this is part and parcel to that ongoing discussion,” Sheets says.
Sheets says the body cameras will afford police and the public a more thorough visual record of law-enforcement activities. Human memory and perception are notoriously fallible and always subjective. Sheets says raw footage can become a useful arbiter of facts when the stories of cops and citizens don't mesh.
Sheets says state police are looking for a replacement system that incorporates both dash-cams on cruisers and body cameras on cops.
“And I think if you have both that goes a long way toward protecting the rights of our citizens, and protecting the troopers as they do their day-to-day jobs,” Sheets says.
The transition won’t be cheap. And the cost of storing archival footage could become a big ticket item for a force already struggling with budget constraints. Up-front equipment costs, combined with data storage expenses for 200 dash cams and 220 body cams over four years, could hit $2 million annually, according to Sheets.
“I think it’s important for the citizens to understand we are moving forward, this is important to us,” Sheets says. “But it really is almost one of those unfunded moral mandates.”
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU, says it’s a cost worth bearing.
“Body cams can actually put everybody on better behavior. When you’re filming something, people tend to act differently,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert says he thinks body cam footage will more often than not verify the version of events offered by troopers. But he says incidents in recent years show Vermont isn’t immune to abuses of police power.
Gilbert says body cam footage will provide the assurance civilians need to know that police are working for the citizenry, and not against it.
“Absent that kind of verification, though, I think increasingly people are getting suspicious of how police interact with the public, and that’s a bad situation for all of us,” Gilbert says.
Last February, Rick Scott, the head of Taser International, which sells body camera systems, flew to Vermont to testify to lawmakers. Scott said that, according to data from Taser International, the use of body cameras correlated with a 60-percent decrease in the use of Tasers. Scott said a police officer wearing a body camera is also two-and-a-half times less likely to be involved in a physical altercation with a subject.
Body camera vendors have until the end of this month to respond to the state’s request for bids.
Gilbert says simply having body cameras on the force doesn’t guarantee improved transparency, and the issue of when they’re recording, when they’re not, and who makes that call all figure in to the effectiveness of the program.
Sheets says the state police will model its body-cam policy after best practices recommended by national law-enforcement organizations. He says development of those plans are still in their infancy.
“But I think really it’s a fairly simple standard: if you’re having contact with a citizen, then it’s going to be on,” Sheets says.
Gilbert, however, says that public faith in the integrity of the data collection will require body cameras to be on at all times, so that people don’t think police are selectively omitting key elements of traffic stops or other incidents.