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Pittsfield City Council Ordinance and Rules subcommittee backs police body cam petition

A stone building with a colonnade lit by lights sits in front of a brick churck and a street lamp
Josh Landes

A Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council subcommittee voted this week to back a citizen petition calling on police officers to be equipped with body cameras.

The Ordinance and Rules subcommittee met Monday to hear two police body cam petitions – one from local attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo and one from LaMarr Talley. Both were filed in the wake of the March 25th police killing of 22-year-old Miguel Estrella. While the Berkshire District Attorney’s investigation into the matter continues, witnesses have disputed narratives presented by the Pittsfield Police Department. A preliminary internal report from the PPD said Officer Nicholas Sondrini was in compliance with use of force policies when he shot and killed Estrella. Members of the public addressed the body.

“Obviously I don't think body cameras are a fix-all solution. That's obvious. We have a serious mental health problem going on here, no resources, year waits to get into a therapist. We have a lot of issues. And Pittsfield seems to be very reactive instead of proactive. Body cameras are somewhat reactive," said Jacquelyn Sykes, the girlfriend of the late Daniel Gillis. Gillis was shot and killed by a later exonerated Pittsfield Police officer during a mental health crisis.

“If in 2010 we had body cameras of the shooting of Mike Barry, where he got shot in the back naked in the woods, I highly doubt in 2017, when Danny was shot seven times by Officer [Christopher] Colello, that he would still be an officer," said Sykes. "We would have proof of what he did.”

Like with accounts of what led to Estrella’s death, Sykes – who was there when Pittsfield cops gunned down Gillis – says body cams would lessen the department’s ability to control the narrative in use of force situations.

“In the police reports I received, they said that he was shot, Danny was shot two times," continued Sykes. "And then they paused and shot five to six more times, totaling seven shots, reports that he was shot in his back that would prove that he was already on the ground being shot. This can prevent someone else from doing the same, from the same officers who repeatedly do shootings who are being, you know, police brutality, all of that. People get arrested, the next day, they wake up in the hospital with bruises all over them from excessive force. This happens every single day. And nobody's held liable. When the police are held liable, they settle out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. It's just not right.”

Miguel Estrella’s brother, Corey Johnson, said he was in support of body cams, but not without reservation.

“We definitely don't need the police in self-control of the footage," he told the subcommittee. "If we do get body cams, we need to have a real open discussion about who's going to be managing that footage, where that footage is stored, and who- Because there can come a lot of corruption. And I do know that the Pittsfield Police Department is famously corrupt and continuously negligent, and these officers aren't trained properly. And if we're going to start somewhere, it should probably be defunding the police. So the last thing I want to do is give them more money to further being negligent.”

Police Chief Michael Wynn says he supports body cameras in theory, but his main concern comes down to funding and two legal issues.

“Massachusetts remains a two-party consent state, and nobody seems to be willing to take a look at that. Who gets to grant consent, who gets to withdraw consent?" asked Wynn. "And if somebody attempts to withdraw consent, what do you do?”

The other issue is around the footage gathered by body cameras entering the public record.

“Our officers could enter your home and engage in filming and interaction with you about something that may not be criminal, that may not be medical, but it could be potentially embarrassing, or sensitive for something you wouldn't want your neighbors to know," said Wynn. "And if we can't fit it into one of the exemptions within the public records law, we could be compelled to produce that for anybody.”

As with the most recent full city council meeting – back on April 26th – critics of body cams also made themselves heard.

Kamaar Taliaferro argued that the real issue remains police responding to mental health emergences and cited research on body cams questioning their efficacy in accountability.

“What those researchers found was, quote, although officers and citizens are generally supportive of body worn camera use, body worn cameras have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of police officer and citizen behavior, or citizens views of police, end quote,” said Taliaferro.

A 2022 report from the National Institute of Justice supports those findings, noting that “a comprehensive review of 70 studies of body-worn cameras use found that the larger body of research on body-worn cameras showed no consistent or no statistically significant effects.”

The subcommittee unanimously voted to support body cams for Pittsfield Police officers. The full city council meets next on May 10th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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