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Prompting frustration among city councilors, Pittsfield Police body camera program stalls over unspecified union concerns

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Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Captain Gary Traversa speaking in Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council chambers on October 25th, 2022.

At its bimonthly meeting Tuesday night, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council learned that a police body camera pilot program meant to begin this week is in fact on pause.

Following the fatal police shooting of 22-year-old Miguel Estrella during a mental health crisis in March, discussion about oversight has persisted in Pittsfield. While some in the community point to evidence that body cameras will not prevent police misconduct or rectify structural issues with policing, others – including loved ones of people killed in interactions with police – are desperate for any option to expand transparency.

Captain Gary Traversa of the Pittsfield PD came before the council to respond to a petition from Ward 5 City Councilor Patrick Kavey for an update about the body cameras.

“We've met with three vendors, we fairly quickly narrowed that down to two," said Traversa. "We continue to have conversations with both of those vendors. We have completed a matrix comparing all those products. We have the equipment, and our next step would be to deploy the cameras in the field.”

Those two vendors are Axon and BodyWorn. Less populous Great Barrington became the first in Berkshire County to outfit officers with body cameras made by Axon in September.

While the pilot program will only involve eight officers, the PPD will eventually have to secure 90 body cameras for the full force.

Despite an October 20th message to the council from Chief Michael Wynn saying that the actual testing of the body cameras would begin this week, Traversa announced that it had been delayed. At-Large City Councilor Earl Persip pressed him to explain.

“What's the delay?” asked Persip.

“Some concerns that the unions have,” said Traversa.

“It was my understanding, and I think with the police's letter, I thought we had that all worked out, no?” asked Persip.

“No, there were there are fairly recent delays. We are- We started to get the training kicked off. There was a slight delay from not this past weekend, the weekend before," said Traversa. "And over the past 10 days, we've just kind of had to hit the pause button.”

“And what's the timeframe to sew up these concerns with the union?” asked the councilor.

“I can't make that, even speculate on that," Traversa responded.

“OK, let's say there's no delays and it hypothetically starts next week and you do your six to eight weeks pilot program," said Persip. "What's the plan for after the pilot program?”

“Our hope was to have a vendor chosen by the end of the year," said Traversa. "Our understanding is that prices go up at that point. So we're hoping to have a contract signed. However, we really haven't, at least on our side of the street, taking a much of a dive into the procurement process. So that is something that we'd have to we'd need some assistance from City Hall.”

Mayor Linda Tyer was no more helpful in explaining the delay.

“I think that there were some issues raised this week that the union needs to work through and we won't be able to move forward until those are settled," the mayor told the council. "I can't speak to it in any greater detail than that.”

Ward 3 City Councilor Kevin Sherman asked Traversa if there was any way to turn the pause into an opportunity to advance elsewhere in the body camera program.

“Can we walk and chew gum at the same time? Can, while we're waiting for situations to resolve themselves, can we proceed so that we have a system or monies in place to move forward?" asked Sherman. "When you say procurement, I’m thinking that we still need to purchase?”

“I haven't myself had any conversations with or I'm not aware that the chief has had any conversations with purchasing or finance,” said Traversa.

“OK,” said Sherman.

“So, it's premature," Traversa continued. "I have had some conversations with the vendors about procurement, and have just kind of tried the hold them off until, you know, we could initiate discussions, I guess, with finance and purchasing.”

“I guess my concern is just the delays are going to keep stacking up if we don't move on some of the unsettled work that to be done to get this done," said Sherman. "That’s all I’m trying to get at.”

“Yeah, no, I understand,” said Traversa.

“Once we get through the pilot program and we've identified which equipment is right for the city of Pittsfield, because both vendors are on a state contract, we don't have a lengthy procurement process, it can move pretty quickly," said Tyer. "We are in the process of applying for a grant through the state for body-worn, there's a body-worn camera grant. So we're in the process of going through that, and at some point, I am going to have to come forward with a request for an appropriation. We're just not there yet.”

The mayor said she couldn’t offer an estimate of what the city might have to spend on the program.

“Because it depends on the technology we choose, the added elements that we want to include, the storage- There's a lot of elements, so I can't give you, and I don't want to, because it would be, you know, premature to give an estimate,” said Tyer.

The city’s explanations did not appease Persip.

“The community’s waited a long time for this," said the councilor. "We've heard the outcry for this. The fact there's a delay, I’ve got to say, I'm disappointed. I thought we had our ducks in a row. I'm sure you did, too. But anything we could do to speed this back up, I don't want to delay. I think we should table this and have an update in two weeks. I think the community would want an update in two weeks at our next meeting. So I don't think we should file this. But just if you could do what needs to be done to get an estimate, I think this council would approve that, to a certain extent, to have that money ready for when we are ready to move forward. I think the community's waited, and anything to speed this up.”

The petition was tabled to give Tyer and Wynn a two-week window to prepare an update on the police body camera program’s progress.

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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