Fatal police shooting of Miguel Estrella renews debate over body cams for Pittsfield Police
The fatal shooting of a Pittsfield, Massachusetts man by a city police officer last month is renewing debate about what role body cameras could play in law enforcement accountability.
While Miguel Estrella’s death at the hands of Pittsfield Police on March 25th remains under investigation by Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, the adoption of body cameras by city officers has returned to local discourse. A preliminary report from the Pittsfield Police Department released Wednesday concluded that officers acted appropriately when they first tased, then shot and killed Estrella. Estrella’s girlfriend, who witnessed the shooting, disputes the official narrative.
Two Pittsfielders came to Tuesday night’s city council meeting with petitions in hand calling for city police to be outfitted with body cameras.
“10 to 20 years from now, it's inevitable, we're going to have body cameras, it's inevitable we're going to have these things," said LeMarr Talley. "The point is to get them here.”
Talley said they would make police work more closely with community members and provide evidence of misconduct.
“I've been through my own issues in the city dealing with the search and seizure policies where I've been affected, where in a situation where if there had been body cams, I would have been proven to be innocent, where I wouldn't have been going through prosecution for so long,” he said.
“Clearly, body cams are not fix-all’s or panaceas. However, I can tell you as an attorney, they are bloody important tool," said local attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo. “If you look at the prosecution of the people that killed George Floyd, yes, there was very important footage from the street. But there was body cam footage before. And believe me, if those police officers had the opportunity to fabricate what had happened, they would have.”
Body camera opponents also made their case to the council.
Community activist Meg Bossong of Invest In Pittsfield read a Pittsfield Police Department grant narrative from the December 8th, 2020 city council meeting materials.
“For the past 15 years, PPD has committed to placing more, less lethal technology and tools in the hands of our frontline officers in order to increase access and decrease the time necessary for equipment to make it to a crisis scene," read Bossong. "Technology currently available to patrol and investigations includes pepper ball, Taser, electronic control weapons, and shotgun launched, less lethal projectiles. Supervisors and special units also have access to 40 millimeter less lethal rounds. This project will allow us to complete the deployment of Taser devices to 100% of our sworn personnel and add the additional platform of BolaWrap launchers. Our current situation with some officers not having issued Tasers could lead to a circumstance where a higher level of force is utilized due to a Taser not being on scene. Full Taser deployment and the introduction of BolaWrap will reduce injuries and lead to more successful resolutions of crisis incidents.”
The grant in question was for $40,000 to be used toward more Tasers and BolaWrap launchers, and was accepted by the Pittsfield city council.
“This, ShotSpotter, body cams- There seems to be no limit to the amount of money this body is willing to spend on equipment for the Pittsfield Police Department, not one item of which prevents any of the things that happened to Miguel, that happened to Danny Gillis, that have happened to any of the other people who are suffering in this city,” said Bossong.
Bossong described the $11 million PPD budget as bloated and poorly accounted for, saying money could be better spent on youth programming, affordable housing, economic development, and more.
“There is no line integrity in that budget," she told the council. "The things that you are approving are not what the department is spending money on. We are double paying for officers who don't exist. We are paying for equipment that never gets utilized. And this city would like some answers and where those BolaWraps are, where our co-responders are. That's your obligation as city councilors.”
Another argument against body cameras was about their efficacy at holding law enforcement officials responsible for possible misconduct.
“If the hope is to reduce officer use of force and police misconduct, a 2017 randomized control trial of over 2,000 officers in Washington D.C. found that there was no statistically significant difference," said former city councilor Helen Moon, who spent two two-year terms representing Ward 1 through 2021. “If the hope is to hold police officers accountable through the legal justice system when there is officer misconduct, a 2016 study found that only about 8% of compiled video footage is actually used to prosecute police officers. If the hope is for accurate depiction of what has occurred between officers and the public, especially when there are no bystanders available, we must remember that body camera footage is always from the body, always from the point of view of the officer and it can often be incomplete, altered or depicted in a way that distorts reality rather than presenting the unbiased truth.”
Both Del Gallo’s and Talley’s petitions on equipping Pittsfield police officers with body cameras were referred to the Ordinance and Rules subcommittee.