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Amid National Protests, Vermont State Police Don't Expect Body Cameras This Year

A police officer wearing a body camera.
Damian Dovarganes
/
Associated Press File
Vermont State Police don't expect to get body cameras this year because of budget concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But critics say they shouldn't wait.

Protests against police brutality have swept the country over the last week after a white police officer in Minneapolis was seen on video pressing his knee into the neck of George Floyd, a black man who then died. The incident has reinvigorated calls for law enforcement accountability measures, including the use of body cameras.

In Vermont, more than two dozen agencies outfit officers with the devices. But the state’s largest law enforcement agency, Vermont State Police, does not outfit all troopers with body cameras — and the agency says that’s unlikely to change this year.

For five years, Vermont State Police have said they want body cameras.

“We wanted them many years ago,” said VSP Capt. Garry Scott.

More from VPR: Safer, But Expensive: State Police Consider Body Cameras

The agency actually has enough money to buy the cameras, about $700,000 dollars, Scott said, but they don’t have funding for the video storage.

“We would need a year to year line item to financially sustain this program,” he said.

State police have often cited budgetary restraints as the main sticking point in outfitting troopers with cameras.

"We wanted them many years ago." — Gary Scott, Vermont State Police Captain

In January, VSP initially asked the legislature for $387,747 dollars for the body camera program, about 0.5% of their $74 million budget.

But that was before COVID-19. State police say their initial budget proposal has been tabled in light of the financial crunch caused by the pandemic. 

Now Scott, with the state police, says he doesn’t expect the agency will get cameras this year. When asked if there was any push to accelerate the process, he said, “No.”

“I'm not actively pushing because of the financial situation and what has happened legislatively with the pandemic, so I think it’s sort of to see where we’re going to be at, budgetary-wise,” he said.

Increasingly, the state police are outliers in Vermont law enforcement. At least 27 police departments, including those in Lyndonville, Brattleboro and Berlin, outfit officers with body cameras, according to the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council.

Burlington, the state’s largest city, began using the devices six years ago while Michael Schirling, now the Commissioner of Public Safety, was chief of the department.

Schirling said back in 2014 that body cameras were an important technology for police departments to embrace.

“It creates a level, as we’ve mentioned, of added transparency,” he told Vermont Edition. “But it also clearly documents the performance of our officers. It highlights the challenges that they face day to day, and ultimately it helps us to continue to be a learning organization.”

"It creates a level, as we've mentioned, of added transparency. But it also clearly documents the performance of our officers." — Michael Schirling, former Burlington Police Chief in 2014

There have been 44 state police shootings since 1977 and none resulted in charges against the officer.

State police do have some body cameras. Members of their Tactical Services unit, which responds to things like hostage situations and manhunts, are outfitted with them, and state police cruisers also have dashboard cameras.

But Jay Diaz, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said it’s disappointing that, given the national calls for police accountability, state police still aren’t prioritizing body cameras.

“The state police has a budget of about $70 million dollars," he said. "So to say that they don’t have the resources to do this simply just doesn’t pass the smell test."

More from VPR: Crowd Confronts Burlington Police During Protest For George Floyd

Videos of police encounters can be a powerful force, as demonstrated by the recent protests sparked after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A video, recorded by a bystander, shows Derek Chauvin, a white officer, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, despite Floyd telling the officer he couldn’t breathe.

The four officers involved were fired. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, and the other officers face charges of aiding and abetting.

Vermont State Police condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, calling the incident “beyond disturbing.”

But critics like Diaz say state police have long been reluctant to embrace one of the key tools that could help prevent similar incidents here. Last year, state police asked that money set aside to buy them body cameras instead be spent on new patrol rifles. The legislature denied that request.

“Saying that you want the cameras is not the same thing as saying it is a priority for you to put the cameras on every state police trooper,” Diaz said.

"The state police has a budget of about $70 million dollars. So to say that they don't have the resources to do this simply just doesn't pass the smell test." — Jay Diaz, American Civil Liberties Union

In Vermont, the release of body camera footage has led to policy reform and criminal charges in the last year.

Footage of a Burlington police officer shoving a black man into a wall led to a federal lawsuit and spurred the city to review the department’s use of force policy.

In another high profile case last year, body camera footage showed a former St. Albans officer punching a handcuffed woman. The officer was fired and faces criminal charges.

Attorney General TJ Donovan, who filed the charges, said that the body camera footage was “critical.”

“In this case there is a videotape, and the videotape is going to be the best evidence in this case,” Donovan told reporters after the arraignment. “And so I don’t want to speculate what would have happened without it.”

More from VPR: Lawsuits Allege Police Brutality By Burlington Officers, Videos Show Encounters

While state police might not be expecting to get body cameras this year, some lawmakers will be pushing for them.

“We’ve waited too long in my opinion,” said Sen. Dick Sears.

Sears, who is on the Appropriations Committee and chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he’ll advocate for body cameras to be included in the state police’s budget. He said the national unrest and calls for police reform only make the matter more urgent.

“Something will happen,” Sears said, “and we’ll scratch our heads … ‘Why did we put this off again?’”

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