Recently released body camera footage in Burlington showed police allegedly using excessive force against two black men. The videos sparked public outcry and calls for police reform.
Body cameras have been seen as a way to bring accountability and transparency to law enforcement. In Vermont, 31 agencies have body cameras, according to the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. But the state’s largest police force, the Vermont State Police, still doesn’t outfit all their troopers with the devices.
In Sept. 2018, Burlington Police Sgt. Jason Bellavance responded to a call about an altercation at a bar downtown.
Bellavance’s body camera footages shows him walking up to two men arguing on the street — Jeremie Meli and the bartender.
Without announcing himself, Bellavance shoves Meli, who’s black. Meli falls back and his head slams into a brick wall.
This incident, along with another similar one, are the subject of two federal lawsuits. The cases sparked protest and calls for reforming police use of force policy. Burlington’s city council and mayor say they’re going to take up the issue.
While everyone might have a different take on the incidents, most people agree that having the body camera footage is important.
Evan Chadwick, the attorney who filed the lawsuits against Burlington Police, said the footage helps confirm the allegations.
“It gives you extra confidence in what your witnesses are saying are true and in our case, it very much did,” he said.
And Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said body camera footage adds important context to internal reviews.
“When an officer knows he's on film and he walks up to someone and shoves them, you know, we're left to wonder when we consider our discipline what was the motivation, what was the intent, what is the expected outcome of shoving, why was he doing it and what could he have done otherwise,” del Pozo said.
Several days after the Burlington videos were published, in Hartford, state police shot a man on domestic violence call.
In a press release, state police said James Luce was walking in the road with a shotgun. When a trooper told him to drop the gun, Luce didn’t. The trooper fired his shotgun, grazing Luce and causing minor injuries.
State police are currently investigating the shooting, but there won’t be video from the perspective of the trooper that shot Luce. That’s because most state troopers don’t have body cameras.
“I would have envisioned that we would have had body cameras by now,” said Vermont State Police Capt. Garry Scott. “We want them, the public wants them — that part is frustrating and it comes down to … doing it the right way.
State police do have body cameras for their Tactical Service Unit, but that’s a select group that responds to things like hostages situations and manhunts.
So what’s held up the agency’s plan to outfit all troopers with body cameras? It comes down to money, said Scott, especially the annual cost for storing the footage. At the low end, he estimates it would be about $260,000 a year.
“But those could go up and down depending upon a lot of things,” Scott said. “So figuring out what that looks like with the state-funded cloud-based system or a private vendor. Those are two different costs.”
The agency’s proposed budget this year is a little over $69 million.
Vermont State Police aren’t alone in saying they struggle with the cost of body cameras. In January, The Washington Post reported that many small police agencies are getting rid of cameras due to the costs.
Windham Rep. Nader Hashim, a former state trooper, thinks the body cameras might not be worth the investment since all state police cruisers have dash cameras.
“The video and audio from the cruiser accomplishes the task that both the officers want and also the public wants in terms of accountability,” he said.
But body cameras can be useful, says Jay Diaz, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont
“And we support them as long as we put policies in the place where we center the focus around the interests of the public — not law enforcement,” Diaz said. “They need to be a tool for public accountability and transparency in law enforcement operations.”
To make them effective tools, Diaz said department should adopt policies like not allowing officers to review footage before making statements and requiring officers to keep cameras on for the duration of an incident.
The state’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General TJ Donovan, is optimistic that state police will get body cameras and says it’s now best practice in law enforcement.
“It’s good for the cop, it’s good for the citizen and it allows prosecutors to really see firsthand what occurred in order to make a determination that justice would require,” Donovan said.
State police do have some money for body cameras. A few years ago the agency got $1.7 million in state and federal money. The funds were used to update cruiser cameras and work on the video storage issue.
But in January state police wanted to use the leftover cash, about half million dollars, to get new patrol rifles. Scott said there’s been an increase in shootings and concerns over trooper safety.
“Now we saw this need, of increase of shootings, we wanted to make sure our members have the best equipment possible especially when it comes to firearms,” he said. “So the colonel made an ask of the legislature with the money that was sitting there - could we go down this path and look at this as an option?”
When asked if shootings were an indication that body cameras were needed more than new rifles, Scott said state police do want body cameras and that they’ve “wanted them all along.”
Ultimately, lawmakers didn’t let the agency to shift the funds. Scott said state police will keep working with the legislature to try to get funding for a body cameras.