Is Portsmouth, NH ready for police body cameras?
“RECOMMENDATION 21: Encourage all law enforcement agencies to use body-worn and/or dash cams.
Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the New Hampshire Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency was created. Members included representatives from groups and agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Security, Human Rights Commission, Police Standards and Training Board, Advisory Council from the governor on diversity, the NAACP, the NH Police Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the ACLU and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
Their report was released on August 31, 2020, making 48 specific recommendations, including defending police bodies and dash cams. They had thoroughly researched the value of body and dash cams after listening to testimony from a wide representation of citizens and experts.
About 30 years ago, on March 3, 1991, the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles was filmed by a citizen. At that time, few people carried cameras. Police body cameras were a thing of future dreams. Luckily, someone had a state-of-the-art Sony camcorder. Millions of us have seen this video, but in this case, whatever evidence the video showed, the officers – four of them – were acquitted. Two of them were later convicted of civil rights violations, but the verdict illustrated the inequality of our laws and the bias of some law enforcement agencies.
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We live in a different era of technology today than we did three decades ago, and body cameras for police officers have become widely used, as have personal phone cameras. When George Floyd was tortured to death by a police officer who forced his knee to his neck on May 25, 2020, police body cameras and personal phone cameras of bystanders showed what happened.
This video was used during the trial and contributed to the verdict of murder of the person who committed the crime, whose name does not need to be mentioned by anyone other than those who make daily calls in the cell block that will remain forever.
George Floyd was about to be arrested on suspicion of smuggling a counterfeit $20 bill. It was the use of cameras by police and citizens that proved the real crime: someone misused his badge by pressing a knee on his neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
The cameras proved it. No lie about what happened could excuse it. No one denies who was responsible. No guesswork on when the torture was applied: 9 minutes, 29 seconds.
In our state, a growing list of communities have or are in the process of implementing police body cameras, including Manchester, Dover, Laconia, Rochester, Hollis, Hanover, Goffstown and Weare. Nashua just launched its body cam program two months ago, with strong backing from chef Michael Carignan. The State Police and the Strafford County Sheriff’s Department do. An update from the US Department of Justice said 47% of 15,328 state and local law enforcement departments use body cameras.
In Portsmouth, a citizens’ committee was set up by the Police Commission in 2018 and ultimately decided “not to adopt body cameras at this time”. Times are changing, however, and last October, after considering a number of policing reforms made by Portsmouth residents, the Commission agreed it was time to “reassess the feasibility” of body cameras.
It is time to come back to this discussion. The question of whether we are taking the necessary steps towards greater transparency and openness is not so much about our police service as it is about us and our community. The questions we need to answer are: is there a need, can we afford it, are we ready?
And can we afford not to have them? Let’s never forget: 9 minutes, 29 seconds.
Today’s quotes: “George Floyd – say his name” and “I can’t breathe”. — global refrains that continue to bring needed reforms to law enforcement.
Next time: Portsmouth City Council form of government.
Jim Splaine has served in a variety of capacities since 1969 as Deputy Mayor of Portsmouth, Police Commissioner and School Board Member, as well as Senator and State Representative for New Hampshire. He can be contacted at [email protected]