SEABROOK — Rapidly changing technology is altering the basics of daily lives, but the field of law enforcement may be seeing some of the most sophisticated improvements.
A recent move by Seabrook police to put surveillance cameras in marked patrol cruisers isn’t new. Hundreds of police departments across the nation have installed the technology for decades, including New Hampshire State Police. But the quality of the new equipment makes it a boon to crime fighting.
In Seabrook, the issue is one of safety for officers and the public, according to police Chief Lee Bitomske, as well as a way to earn back the trust of residents after a police brutality scandal rocked the town.
But according to Seabrook Selectman Ray Smith, improvements in cameras and audio recording equipment have made the technology an important part of catching and convicting criminals, providing evidence that can withstand challenges by defendants.
According to Lt. Christopher Vetter, commander of Troop A Epping of the New Hampshire State Police, technological improvements have been coming pretty fast over the past two decades.
“If you looked in a cruiser today, it would be very different than it was 20 years ago,” Vetter said.
Something as basic as writing tickets got an upgrade in Troop A about 12 months ago, he said, when electronic-ticketing capability was added.
Of its 262 patrol cruisers, N.H. State Police have 65 with audio and video recording devices spread across the state, and Vetter drove one of them in 1999 when he was patrolling Seacoast roadways.
“I had a camera in my cruiser and it was the best thing I ever had,” Vetter said.
The incident that came instantly to mind for Vetter occurred on an October night in 1999, when he pulled Joseph Todd Gamester over for a traffic violation.
“What I didn’t know at the time was that he’d stabbed someone to death in Portsmouth,” Vetter said.
During the stop, Vetter noticed that Gamester had injuries to his hands. When asked what happened, Gamester said he’d recently been in a fight. All the while, Vetter’s audio and video equipment was recording the stop.
“My video alerted Portsmouth police and allowed them to take the suspect into custody,” Vetter said. “The video was used in the trial and I testified.”
Gamester was convicted and sentenced to 12 to 24 years in jail for reckless manslaughter in the stabbing of a Rye man, Anthony Record, found on a Portsmouth street, dead from a deep stab wound to his chest that punctured his lungs and heart.
As Seabrook plans to do, Vetter’s cruiser had cameras and mikes on the dash pointing forward and another set aimed at the back seat, where suspects sit during transport.
“More than once I’d find out interesting information after I reviewed the footage that the rear camera had recorded while the suspect was alone in the cruiser,” Vetter said.
But beyond dash and backseat cameras and microphones in cruisers, technology exists that allows officers to wear chest cameras and mikes, he said.
In Weare, N.H., which like Seabrook endured controversy over police officer misconduct, its 12 officers will wear cameras mounted on their uniforms. According to Weare police Chief John Velleca, the move helps protect the public from further misconduct, but also helps officers defend themselves from false claims of abuse.
As effective as they appear, money and budgets could be the reasons why more police departments aren’t using the audio/visual technologies available. It will cost more than $44,000 to outfit only seven Seabrook cruisers with video and audio capabilities.
“They’re expensive,” Vetter said. “They’re expensive to buy and expensive to install.”