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Pittsfield City Council endorses petitions to equip police officers with body, dash cams

A stone building with a colonnade.
Josh Landes

At its meeting Tuesday night, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council voted to endorse two petitions calling for police officers to be equipped with body cameras.

The March 25th police killing of Miguel Estrella in the city’s West Side neighborhood has spurred the newest round of calls for Pittsfield to adopt officer body cameras. While the incident remains under investigation by the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office, community members and witnesses to the shooting are disputing official police narratives. It’s not the first time a Pittsfielder experiencing a mental health crisis has been killed after a 911 call was made.

“When the community doesn't stay consistent, things just get brushed under the carpet. If this does get passed tonight, please know that my commitment coming to these meetings will not stop," said Jacquelyn Sykes, the girlfriend of the late Daniel Gillis, who met a similar fate at the hands of Pittsfield Police in 2017. “There is many changes that need to be made in this city. Body cameras aren't the end all solution. It's quite sickening that [there] hasn't been any changes yet. Policies and procedures are thrown together. I'm sure if it was your immediate family this happened to, if they were shot like Danny Gillis, seven times in five seconds, things would have already been changed. And I just want you guys to put yourself in our positions and understand the community is coming together this time. We're not backing down. We're going to continue to come put petitions forward.”

On the agenda were two petitions calling on the city council to officially back body and dash cameras for police. Both emerged from the Ordinance and Rules subcommittee with unanimous votes of support.

“One of the reasons we voted this four-to-zero was to get it moving and to get the council to go on record that we want the mayor and the chief to do everything possible to get this going forward and to also hopefully refer or write an additional letter to our state delegation, the Attorney General, and the Governor to get moving on this so we can clear up the legal issues that are stopping us from moving forward with having body cams," said at-large city councilor and council Vice President Pete White. “The petition also includes dash cams, which I don't think has any legal issues as far as wiretapping goes. However, I think we should move forward with this. And then the council can decide after it's been to Ordinance and Rules what we do on any other petitions that may or may not put a policy in place. This isn't putting a policy, this is just our endorsement and asking the mayor and chief to move forward.”

Police Chief Michael Wynn said he couldn’t offer a specific timeline on how soon his department could have its officers wearing body cams once official policy is crafted and instated.

“If we were to put together a request for proposals this week, we probably wouldn't have a vendor selected before mid-summer," he told the council. "And that's assuming that all the funding was in place. There's grant funding, so that's not a barrier. Really, the downstream issue is personnel to review and redact the footage. So it's not going to be a quick fix, but not years.”

Wynn has repeatedly expressed concerns about body cams potentially setting up legal liability issues for his officers – a fear not shared by everyone on the council dais.

“Boston does it. Amherst does it. The state police do it," said Ward 1 City Councilor Kenny Warren, who has submitted a draft body camera ordinance to the council based on that of Amherst, which is in turn based on an ACLU model. “Boston used the ACLU ordinance, Amherst used it, Cambridge used it. So they deal with those. So we can do those down the road. But we've got to let the administration and the public know how, what and how we support it. And I support it, and I want us to move forward.”

“We’ve watched people come up to this podium and ask for body cameras or dashboard cameras. I don't think I've heard one person, including the police chief and people that represent the police, the unions, that said they didn't want the cams, or the dashboard cameras. Seems like everybody's in agreement," said at-large city councilor Earl Persip. “[Where] we disagree is policy issues, law issues, and we'll work those things out.”

Despite Persip’s statement, the council has heard many Pittsfielders over the past weeks express concerns that body cameras would merely increase the city’s police spending without providing additional accountability or lessening the likelihood of use of force.

Both petitions received unanimous approval, but Ward 7’s Anthony Maffuccio was absent for a second consecutive meeting due to a family death. The call for body and dash cams was referred to Mayor Linda Tyer, Chief Wynn, Pittsfield’s state legislators, the attorney general’s office, and the governor.

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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