Brattleboro police embrace technology for transparency

Personnel will get new body cameras, cruisers, and other upgrades

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Police Department will soon get some new equipment, including three new vehicles and body-worn cameras.

Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald appeared at the July 17 regular Selectboard meeting to discuss the details and seek the Board's approval on both items.

The Selectboard approved a contract with Axon, a firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the body-worn cameras and technical support programs.

The Board also approved of the purchase of three new police cars: two cruisers and one major incident vehicle.

Police officials have discussed the possibility of introducing body-worn videocameras to officers' patrol equipment for about four years, Fitzgerald said.

Recently, BPD staff have conducted research on different camera companies and equipment. The company that stood out as best serving the department's needs, Fitzgerald said, is Axon.

This past year, $15,000 was allocated in the capital improvement budget for the cameras, but it is barely enough, Fitzgerald noted. For 18 cameras, other hardware, software, regular upgrades, and technical support and services, Axon wants $64,196.

The company will send a representative to train BPD staff, and it provides replacements “if cameras break or systems crash,” he said.

With the Axon upgrade program, “we'll have the latest and greatest technology within our program,” he said.

Fitzgerald said Axon offered the town a five-year payment plan to cover the cost, and by purchasing 18 cameras, they get two for free.

Welcomed by officers

Although 20 cameras “wouldn't give everyone [a camera] if we were fully staffed [...] we're not fully staffed,” Fitzgerald said. That amount will cover the current police force, he said, and the BPD will purchase additional body-worn cameras as needed.

“It's a piece of equipment that is very much needed and welcomed by all the officers,” Fitzgerald said. “It's going to increase our transparency, improve our delivery services, enhance community relations, improve evidence collection and the prosecution of cases, and enhance officer performance and improvement tools."

All officers have their own assigned body-worn cameras, Fitzgerald said. This will simplify the review of footage without having to find out which officer was wearing the camera, he explained.

Another good reason for such cameras is that they need to be docked at the end of a shift to upload the footage and recharge the battery, Capt. Mark Carignan said.

Fitzgerald noted Axon provides secure cloud storage for the footage recorded on the body-worn cameras, and it includes automatic face-recognition redaction.

“For a chief, that in itself is so important,” he said, and explained that otherwise, the department would have to buy software, hire and train a dedicated officer to review all of the footage, and manually redact the faces of children, for example.

With Axon's redaction program, a child's face “would be pixelled over.”

Carignan noted the software program “will maximize officers' time on the road and minimize their time processing videos.”

The storage website allows the BPD to give certain agencies, such as the State's Attorney's office, access to the footage. It will also facilitate fulfilling public records requests.

Selectboard Chair Kate O'Connor asked if the cameras would roll all the time during an officer's shift.

No, said Fitzgerald. “They will be on when [the officer] is doing law-enforcement activity,” but not when the officer is engaged in a “friendly conversation,” or “they go in [a shop] and have a cup of coffee,” he explained.

But, if that “conversation turns into law-enforcement action,” the officer is required to turn on the camera.

Fitzgerald acknowledged the BPD is still working on policies and best practices for the cameras' use. He is consulting with the Town Attorney Bob Fisher, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Vermont Police Academy on these policies.

He noted that “in Vermont, we have to let you know we're recording.”

Selectboard member Tim Wessel asked about privacy considerations, especially for people involved in domestic violence situations. Fitzgerald agreed with Wessel's concerns, and noted, “That's personal, and we really have to be aware of that.”

He said the redaction capabilities will help with that, and he will discuss the matter with Fisher.

The fiscal year 2019 capital improvement program includes funding for the apparatus, Fitzgerald said.

New cruisers

Through a state contract, the police department works with Formula Ford, a dealership in Montpelier, to order and customize police vehicles.

But, Fitzgerald noted, the company has notified him that it will soon raise prices. Because the BPD hasn't had time to get the specs ready for the cars, Fitzgerald asked the Board in the meantime to approve a maximum purchase price of $94,684.

“Nothing will be higher,” said Fitzgerald, and the final cost will likely be lower once the trade-in value of the soon-to-be-retired vehicles is calculated.

In response to community concern, Fitzgerald told Board members he is looking into hybrid police cruisers.

“Ford is making great strides,” he said, but the power draw is still too small for the BPD's needs. “The vehicle is constantly running, and we have radios, computers, [and] lights,” he said.

“But it's on the horizon,” said Fitzgerald, and he estimates that, within a few years, Ford's hybrid police cruisers will be ready.

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