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The Push For More N.H. Police Agencies To Use Body Cams

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Photo: West Midlands Police/cc/flickr
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As more police agencies across the country adopt the use of body-worn cameras, and as the footage becomes more and more important in conversations over race and policing in America, police reform advocates in New Hampshire are pushing to expand the use of cameras among local agencies.

Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with NHPR's Mary McIntyre about how body cams are currently used in New Hampshire and what changes might be in store.

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Rick Ganley: So can you tell me, what your body cam requirements look like right now in New Hampshire?

Mary McIntyre: Yeah, so there's no statewide requirement right now that says departments have to have them. There are some police departments across the state that are using body cameras on their own. That includes Manchester, the state's largest city department, Dover, Goffstown and some others. A commission put together by the governor last year to study police accountability and transparency -- that's often referred to as the LEACT Commission -- it did recommend that the state encourage all law enforcement agencies to have body and dash cams.

And the New Hampshire House introduced a bill earlier this session that would have required police agencies to use them, but it didn't pass in committee. You know, they're holding onto that bill for now with plans to reexamine it later. As far as the rest of the country, there are only seven states with body camera requirements, the closest being Connecticut. But there's also a federal police reform bill making its way through Congress, the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. And that could require body cameras for all police agencies in the country if it passed.

Rick Ganley: What's the pushback against requiring body cams for all police officers in New Hampshire? It seems like it would be a win-win situation for both the public and the police.

Mary McIntyre: Right. So throughout this legislative session, most law enforcement officials testifying against making a body cams requirement aren't necessarily against using them. You know, they agree that body cams can be useful for both the public and their own officers. But as you know, New Hampshire is a state that really emphasizes local control. And many of those officers testifying against the bill argue that it should be up to individual communities to decide whether their departments need body cams or not. There are municipalities that have looked into them previously and decided against it, like the city of Portsmouth, which decided a few years ago that the cost just wouldn't be justified.

But, you know, the main concern against a statewide requirement is funding. Smaller departments, especially, argue that the cost would just be too great. There's another bill making its way through the legislature that would establish a body cam fund for police departments who would like to purchase cameras. That fund would be ongoing so departments can maintain their systems. But the current version of that bill would only pay for half the purchase or replacement costs. That would be through a grant from the state to local law enforcement agencies. And the governor is supportive of that bill. It looks likely to pass the legislature, too.

Rick Ganley: Well, Mary, do police agencies feel like that's enough? Is that enough to cover the cost?

Mary McIntyre: So I talked with a few police chiefs about this, and there are still concerns about whether this proposed body cam fund would be enough to help smaller departments. Take the city of Franklin, for example. They've been looking into purchasing body cams for a while now. Here's Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein.

David Goldstein: We are a poor community. I will be quite frank. We are also a tax capped community, which puts another limitation on how funds are raised and budgets are managed. Therefore, any type of financial wherewithal, to me as one of the department heads, is a positive. So if the state is willing to put money aside, I will certainly apply for whatever it is that I can. But again, there are a lot of other variables that go into this program.

Mary McIntyre: Those variables he's talking about are the costs that go beyond just the initial purchase of the equipment. You know, there's also data storage and administrative costs that can add up really quickly. And, you know, this kind of begs the question about whether this grant program alone will be enough to entice more departments to use body cams without an actual requirement in place. But Goldstein says the use of body cams is becoming an expectation from the public, and he expects more New Hampshire departments will start looking into it on their own.

If the state is willing to put money aside, I will certainly apply for whatever it is that I can. - Chief Goldstein

Rick Ganley: Well, for those police agencies that are using body cameras or moving towards using them, is there any guidance from the state on how they're supposed to be used?

Mary McIntyre: Yes, and that's actually a really important question, because the effectiveness of body cams as an accountability tool, it really depends on how the technology is used. There is a state statute in place that has some guidance for how local departments should use them. It says if a police agency uses body cams, the officers should make sure the equipment is turned on and recording when responding to calls or when they engage with a member of the public. Agencies are also required through the statute to make sure body cam recordings are stored for at least 30 days and no longer than 180 days, unless there's footage that's marked as evidentiary or of a serious incident like deadly use of force, for example. That kind of footage can be stored indefinitely.

Rick Ganley: What about access to that? I imagine that that's one of the most important parts of ensuring the body cams are an effective accountability tool.

Mary McIntyre: Yes, definitely, Rick. So access to police records in New Hampshire is not great, body cam footage included. Under the state's current Right-to-Know law, most footage taken with body worn cameras is exempt from release. But there are some exceptions, including video that shows any restraint or use of force by officers. I talked with Daniel Lawrence more about this. He's a researcher for the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. And he says it's important to have access, not only to footage from high profile cases like a police shooting, for example, but that there also needs to be transparency around those everyday interactions between police and the community,

Daniel Lawrence: More of the interactions where officers might be treating community members inhumanely, where they might be disrespectful or cursing. Those types of behaviors have been shown to really negatively impact community members views and perceptions of the police.

Mary McIntyre: But here in New Hampshire and in many other states, the public doesn't have access to footage from those types of everyday incidents that Lawrence is talking about. He says that there are some body cam vendors that are developing algorithms that would help flag footage where an officer is being disrespectful, and that could be helpful for departments that plan to address those incidents internally.

Rick Ganley: But what are you hearing from advocates around the state who are pushing for police reform on body cams?

Mary McIntyre: So, like I said earlier, one of the main recommendations from that LEACT commission was to encourage all police agencies to use body cams. Some members of that commission are frankly disappointed with how the legislature has handled some of their recommendations. There are also some grassroots organizations like New Hampshire's local Black Lives Matter chapters that are moving more towards police abolition and defunding the police. And although some of these organizers believe that body cams are a good step towards transparency, these kinds of reforms end up establishing more funding for the police. And their ultimate goal is to divest funding from police and into other public safety programs.

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