Special Report Part 2: A Look At Body Camera Programs And Legislation Around Massachusetts

Feb 7, 2019

Between a contentious election for district attorney and a move to establish an external review board in Pittsfield, criminal justice reform and police oversight have been hot topics in Berkshire County. Less discussed: the use of body cameras for police officers.

In the first part of our series, we heard why some police chiefs – like Michael Wynn in Pittsfield – are skeptical of body cameras, as well as why the American Civil Liberties Union advocates for their use. Today, we’ll learn about how communities outside of the Berkshires have dealt with body cameras – and what Massachusetts legislators are doing to create a legal framework for the technology and its use.

SPRINGFIELD / BOSTON

In August 2018, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced the city would be phasing-in a body camera program that would put up to 400 of the devices on the street. That followed a year-long pilot program that yielded positive feedback from researchers who analyzed the almost 5,000 hours of police work the cameras captured.

Springfield is also pursuing a city-wide body camera program. Its police department has been involved in the process the entire way through.

Bill Mahoney is the human relations and labor relations director for the city – the largest in Western Massachusetts. He says about six years ago, the city ended up in arbitration with the police union to work out a camera policy for Springfield’s cruisers.

“The arbitrator in that case issued an award which directed the parties to meet and confer and negotiate over proposals for the next round of negotiations for audio and visual camera recording devices," he told WAMC. "We had several meetings, the police supervisors’ union also joined in with us at that time, and between the three groups we hammered out different proposals for the next round of negotiations.”

When the next round started, the patrol officers’ union also got on board.

“We were able to reach a deal that included body worn cameras, and we’re in the process now of implementing that,” said Mahoney.

The city worked with the unions extensively to make them comfortable with the program.

“The union at that point wanted to make sure there was a thorough discussion about the policies, and since then we’ve had a very thorough discussion – we’ve had multiple discussions, multiple proposals, and we were able to reach an agreement with the IBPO about what the policy should look like, what it should entail, when things should be recorded and things shouldn’t be recorded, and I think that they’re fully on board with it at this point,” he said.

According to Mahoney, the city is confident in program’s legal basis: “We have a lengthy policy that addresses giving any party that we have contact with notice that they’re being recorded, so it’s not going to be a surreptitious recording type of policy.”

He says it’s a benefit across the board for Springfield.

“We think that certainly having the program far outweighs any risks that we would have through any other type of recording issues that might come up,” Mahoney told WAMC.

The policy – which is embedded in the city’s contract with its police force – has exceptions: “If it’s just a casual encounter with someone on the street and the officer indicates that they’re recording, there’s provisions in the policy if someone objects to it they wouldn’t record.”

Mahoney says the city has a request for proposal out to camera vendors and is bringing in a consultant for the implementation process.

Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri told the city council February 4th that he welcomes the body camera program as an instrument of trust and accountability after the city lost a $250,000 police brutality lawsuit in January. He estimated that it could take at least six months to implement such a program in the city.

“The goal would be to get the best process moving as quickly as possible," said the police commissioner. "Again, I’m excited to see the state police pilot program. I’m hoping that we can work together with them in regards to research. I’m hoping that maybe we can leverage the price by going in with them. I’m going to reach out to the colonel of the state police – that’s a new development. I guess it’s going to depend on how fast the consultant comes on board and if we can merge our timelines.”

Barbieri is referring to Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s work to implement a program in the Massachusetts State Police. It follows a scandal in which dozens of troopers fraudulently collected overtime.

“As part of a series of reforms to increase accountability and restore public trust at the State Police, Governor Baker and Colonel Gilpin announced that the Department would develop a body camera program, and the Governor looks forward to the State Police implementing this pilot later this year,” said Baker’s office said in a statement.

In 2017, Baker filed legislation that would have carved out body cameras and cruiser cameras used by law enforcement from consideration as intercepting devices under the state wiretap law in some situations.

On February 4th, the Massachusetts State Police announced its body camera pilot program has begun. Devices from multiple vendors will be tested on around 100 troopers over the next six months. The state police said body cameras “offer the potential to bring a new level of officer safety, transparency, and accurate documentation to the tens of thousands of interactions our personnel have with the public every year.”  

CURRENT LEGISLATIVE EFFORT

Despite Wynn’s and Leahy’s claims that state legislators have been uninterested in taking on body camera policy on a statewide level, Somerville State Representative Denise Provost is working on exactly that.

“Boston, our biggest city, has committed to turning its body camera pilot program into complete adoption within the department and I believe the Executive Office Of Public Safety already may have a grant program going," Provost told WAMC. "So I think that the use of body cameras will only increase.”

The Democrat’s bill, HD.3940, was filed in January.

“It creates a taskforce to come up with statewide rules for the deployment and use of body cameras and also how the records it creates are treated under law, but the legislation that sets up this taskforce creates you might say ‘non-negotiable’ standards such as a prohibition on the collection of biometric information and very strict privacy protections for everyone whose image is captured on body cameras,” said the state rep.

Last session, Provost saw a similar attempt fizzle out. Now, she says Boston’s commitment to a larger program – and lower prices on the technology – could bolster the bill. Specifically, she wants the proposed taskforce to streamline the process for all communities in the state.

“I think it helps to take guesswork and uncertainty out of the process, both from the procurement and from having to decided which vendor’s pitch is most convincing, you could just find out from the executive office of technology security and services which body cameras are available off a state contract and be confident that considerable expertise has gone into the selection,” said Provost.

Like Rahsaan Hall of the American Civil Liberties Union of Masssachusetts, she doesn’t believe the chiefs’ concerns about the state’s wiretapping laws are a real impediment.

“Session before last I think, a colleague of mine filed a bill that created such a carve-out," said Provost. "He didn’t file it in the last session. As I’ve talked to – this is a colleague who’s a lawyer and a former police chief – as I’ve talked to lawyers about the applicability of the wiretap law to body cameras, it’s not clear to me that it applies. But that’s one of the reasons for having a taskforce work out some of the details.”

Her bill calls for the taskforce to make recommendations to the legislature about further laws that would be needed to set up before adoption of statewide body camera rules.

BACK IN THE BERKSHIRES

Back in the Berkshires, local politicians are weighing in.

Pittsfield State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier – also a Democrat – says regardless of the existent law, the state must rise to the occasion of the day.

“We have to adapt to the times that we’re in," the state rep told WAMC. "So when the wiretapping laws were first written, no one had even heard of body cameras for police officers. So we need to be able to adapt to the times, and that’s what this legislature can do. And if that is something that’s holding back a good policy, we can address that.”

“I think body cameras would be tremendously helpful in fair and just prosecution," said Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington. She was elected in 2018 on a progressive reform platform.

“There’s nothing like video evidence to demonstrate what happened during an interaction with law enforcement," said Harrington. "I’m really fully in support of body cameras. I think that there have been some challenges with how to implement that, but I think it’s important and it’s definitely worth really trying to work through those challenges.”

While the use of body cameras statewide in Massachusetts is still perhaps years away, Bill Mahoney thinks the tides are changing.

“It’s popular in certain areas of the country and it just hasn’t become very popular in New England at this point," he told WAMC. "But it certainly – if you look across the country – you’ll see departments after departments, particularly mid-sized departments, that are picking up this technology and saying ‘this is a great thing for us,’ and you’ll see that officers once they have it are embracing it warming, saying yeah, ‘everyone has a camera out there’ – and the officers want to have one going too.”