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A tool to boost public trust

Sheriff's deputies will be on the record with body cameras

NEWFANE—Windham County sheriff’s deputies are now armed with cameras.

Sheriff Keith Clark said he has recently begun issuing body cameras to his deputies after a months-long bidding, review, and purchasing process.

Only half of the office’s 30 cameras have arrived. But Clark said he is eager to put them to use as a tool to boost “public trust” and to improve police work.

“It fulfills a lot of needs in this day and age,” Clark said.

The Newfane-based sheriff’s department, which handles municipal patrol contracts, state prisoner transports, and other work, issued a request for body camera bids late last year. Clark said there were six bidders evaluated by a team of supervisors in the sheriff’s department.

They chose cameras manufactured by Axon — the new company name recently adopted by Taser, the stun-gun maker. The company’s police-camera business reportedly has been growing rapidly.

“The company’s been around for a long time,” Clark said. “It’s the quality of the product, reliability, battery life, ease of use by the deputies, quality of imagery.”

The sheriff’s office has received 15 standard cameras that mount to an officer’s chest, Clark said. Still to come are another 15 that are more flexible and can be mounted to a collar, shoulder, hat, or even a pair of glasses.

The cameras cost just under $15,000. Clark said he received permission from an assistant judge to pay for the equipment via “some money left over in the county budget.”

The most-worrisome expense for some police departments is associated with storing the video collected by body cameras. Even relatively short videos can eat up a lot of space, and Clark said some storage services cost more than the cameras themselves.

At this point, Clark said, “we do have enough server space that we can store a significant amount” of video. Alternate storage media could be used for video after a certain period of time, he added.

Ultimately, however, the sheriff says his office probably will have to invest in a cloud-storage product.

Clark said his staff has been receptive to wearing cameras, and he is encouraging people who are curious about the equipment to ask a deputy to explain. “I think some people are aware [of body cameras], and some people may not be,” he said.

Cruiser videos have long been used by police departments. But Clark sees clear benefits to having a more extensive video record of crime scenes and of various interactions with the public.

“It protects the deputies and protects the public,” Clark said. “I think that’s the most important piece of it.”

He also believes there are potential training benefits for deputies, as videos could help determine whether best practices are being used in the field.

The cameras won’t be on all the time; instead, they will have to be manually activated by a deputy. Clark said the sheriff’s department has policies governing appropriate use of the cameras, but his general guidance is “when in doubt, turn it on.”

He expects the office’s policies will change over time because “this is an ever-evolving policy and legal issue.”

Some Vermont police departments have been using body cameras, but they are still far from ubiquitous.

Burlington police recently received approval to expand their use of body cameras by purchasing 115 new units. But the state’s biggest law enforcement organization — the Vermont State Police — doesn’t yet use the technology.

“There is an ongoing effort to explore the potential acquisition of them by [the state police], including the associated costs,” spokesman Scott Waterman said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #404 (Wednesday, April 19, 2017).

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