Burlington Police officers are getting new equipment that officials say will increase transparency and accountability in the department: body cameras.
The department has been using seven body-worn cameras for about two years, and Chief Michael Schirling announced today that the city has budgeted about $18,000 to expand the use of the cameras to include the entire patrol force of the department.
The purchase includes 60 of the cameras, which Schirling says have benefits even beyond increased transparency.
“One of the things that officers reported [during the pilot] was that when they were wearing a camera and they came across someone who was aggressive or potentially was going to get into an altercation, simply the presence of the camera tended to deescalate some of those folks,” he said. “Just being able to point at it or say ‘Hey, you’re being recorded.’”
The announcement comes about 10 months after a Burlington Police officer shot and killed a mentally-ill man who was threatening police with a shovel. There was no recording of the incident, and some residents questioned whether it was appropriate to shoot a man armed only with a shovel.
Investigations by police as well as the Chittenden County State’s Attorney and the Vermont Attorney General cleared officers of any wrongdoing in that case.
Schirling says the decision to purchase the cameras wasn’t driven by that incident, but by the department’s general priorities of transparency and officer safety.
Money was another factor. Officials in Burlington have wanted to buy cameras for the entire patrol force for years, but a recent price drop – from about $1,200 per unit to around $300 per unit – made the move possible this year.
The use of cameras by police has raised questions about privacy in some communities. While vehicle-mounted cameras tend to stay in mostly public areas, officers and their equipment sometimes go into private homes in the line of duty. Schirling says there are policies in place around when and where to record.
“Inside people’s houses we have to advise them that they’re being recorded, so we generally don’t have issues with that, but from time to time people will say they don’t want us to do that so we either move the conversation outside or find an alternate way to have the conversation, or don’t record it,” Schirling said.
Officers can easily start and stop recording with the cameras, Schirling said; it's an important feature when officers go into public restrooms on a call or have to enter a home where the resident doesn’t want them to record.
The rollout of the cameras should be complete, Schirling said, by the end of January 2015.