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Boston City Council Takes Up Police Body Camera Proposal

In this 2014 file photo, a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this 2014 file photo, a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

A Boston city councilor is looking to mandate the use of police body cameras in the city — an issue that has been part of a national conversation on community-police relations after the high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police over the last year.

Most recently: the fatal shooting of Sam DuBose by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a traffic stop. The July incident was captured on the officer's body camera. DuBose was unarmed. A prosecutor said the body cam video contradicts the officer's version of events, and the officer has been charged with murder. The case has renewed discussions about equipping police officers with the technology.

Now the public in Boston will get a chance to weigh in on the issue when the City Council takes it up at a hearing Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Across the country, several cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — have launched pilot programs with body cams.

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh has said he's open to piloting police body cameras. Meanwhile, the Boston Police Department said it's assessing whether or not to implement them. The American Civil Liberties Union has recommended Boston police wear body cameras, after a report found blacks were disproportionately stopped by Boston officers.

Councilor Charles Yancey, who represents Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, is proposing the legislation to require police officers to wear body cameras.

"I believe it's in the best interest of the police department and the general public for us to have a video record of those interactions," Yancey told WBUR's Delores Handy.

Yancey noted a recent officer-involved shooting: In June, Usaamah Rahim was fatally shot by law enforcement officers in Roslindale. Officers had approached him for questioning related to an alleged plot to kill police officers. Authorities say Rahim was shot after he refused to put down a military-style knife.

Law enforcement released surveillance video of the Rahim shooting. In the video, taken from a Burger King about 50 yards away, the individuals on screen appear as silhouettes and you cannot clearly see what’s in their hands.

Yancey said this incident could have benefited from a body camera.

"I think the issues would be far more clearer if the individual police officers actually had body cameras to give us a more insightful view of how dangerous those type of confrontations are and also require justification for any use of deadly force," he said. "And there will be cases where individual citizens will feel that they were unjustifiably treated, well we'll have video evidence of whether or not that was the case."

Earlier this year, there was another fatal shooting involving an officer. In March, Angelo West was fatally shot by officers in Roxbury after authorities say he shot Officer John Moynihan in the face. Law enforcement also released surveillance video in that incident. In that video, Moynihan reaches for the driver's door after the vehicle had been pulled over and is shot as the driver exits the car.

In both cases, Boston police and the Suffolk County district attorney said they made the surveillance videos public to be transparent.

With Body Cameras, There's Concern And Comfort

Shekia Scott, the co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT), said body cameras provide a more objective platform for protection and accountability on both sides. Yancey's legislation was crafted by BPCAT, an organization which formed about a year ago after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

"Being an African-American woman ... it would make me feel more secure to have a body camera on a police officer, as we know in more cases it’s a higher rate of being stopped and frisked or having a car be stopped for a minor infraction and the situation escalates quickly," Scott said.

But Boston police spokesman Lt. Michael McCarthy said community outreach makes more of an impact than "attaching a piece of equipment on a uniform."

"Putting a piece of equipment on the lapel of a uniform is not community policing ... and that’s something we’re very good at unlike most cities in the country," McCarthy said. "We see that as a stronger force to be behind as opposed to equipment that may or may not assist in building trust with the community."

Yancey's proposed legislation calls for all on-duty police officers to wear body cameras and record any interaction when they are responding to a call, pursuing someone or conducting a search. Undercover officers or those doing desk duty or administrative tasks would not be required to wear a body camera.

The Boston Police Department has been looking into body cameras, but there are currently no plans for a pilot program and no timeline for a decision, according to McCarthy.

"[Commissioner William Evans] has not ruled anything off the table, but he is looking into [it]," McCarthy said. "There’s studies going on now across the country as to whether or not they’ve been effective. He’s waiting to see the results of those tests."

Evans is expected to be at Wednesday's City Council hearing.

The commissioner has been in communication with the mayor on the subject. Speaking to reporters after an event last week, Walsh said he wasn't ready to say which way those conversations were leaning.

"I think if you’re going to do something, you don’t need to legislate it," Walsh said. "I think having a conversation with the commissioner and the command staff is the way to go."

Walsh has said he sees body cameras as one tool in police work, but doesn't believe they address deeper problems in the community.

McCarthy said the department has to look into a number of issues before making a decision on body cameras, including privacy concerns, union issues, data storage and the logistics of when the cameras are turned on and who has the ability to control them.

These concerns are also shared by Massachusetts State Police.

"We’re mindful of privacy concerns and ethical concerns," State Police spokesman Dave Procopio said. "We want to make sure we have good policy that governs that. We also want to ensure the security of the data."

State Police currently do not have any personnel equipped with body cameras. The department is in the early stages of exploring the possibility of using body cams as well as dashboard cameras, but "I think were still a ways off in implementing a decision," Procopio said. He said the department is looking to police departments in other states and people in the body camera industry in its research on body cams.

Procopio said several questions need to be addressed before there is any widespread implementation of cameras on personnel or cruisers, including: What will the cost and funding be for the cameras? How will the recording be triggered? Where and how will the data be stored? And how long will the data be retained?

Yancey said because there are privacy concerns, his legislation includes proposed regulations for when and how to use the body cameras. "I don't think it's appropriate in all instances to utilize the camera," he said.

BPCAT's Scott said the proposal outlines when the body cams should be turned on or off, consequences for failing to do so, as well as procedures, data storage guidelines and other logistics.

Communities Across Mass. Considering Body Cams

Across the state, other communities are also looking into body cameras. Wayne Sampson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said his organization supports the use of body cameras. He said there are currently a handful of communities testing out cameras, like: Worcester, Springfield, Methuen, Abington and Gill.

"I believe that over the next year or two you will see a substantial increase in communities using body cameras," Sampson said.

Over the last year, the federal government has also weighed in on body cams. In May, the Justice Department announced it would provide $20 million to police departments for body cameras, the first part of a $75 million, three-year pilot program. Last September, the DOJ issued guidelines on police body cameras for law enforcement agencies deciding whether to implement them. The report cited multiple cases where the use of body cameras led to dramatic reductions in officers using force and in the amount of complaints against police.

Sampson said police chiefs across Massachusetts are looking at those studies.

"Where we don't have our own statistical base here in Massachusetts yet, we can only go on what other communities are seeing and certainly the reduction in citizen complaints is extremely important," Sampson said.

But, Sampson added, there are also cost concerns to consider.

The body cams can cost hundreds per device. For example Taser International sells different body camera models for $399 or $599 each. There are also software and data storage costs. Taser International offers cloud storage starting at $15 per month for a basic service.

While nothing is off the table in Boston, Lt. McCarthy said the department will "continue to do what we do best" — community policing. This week, Boston police have been involved in a series of events for National Night Out, a program that promotes community-police partnerships.

Still, those pushing to equip Boston's police force with body cameras hope Wednesday's hearing will create momentum for their effort.

Related:

Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Digital Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a digital reporter, covering a range of news. She also covers tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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