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Boston's Walsh Says He's Open To Piloting Police Body Cameras

Mayor Marty Walsh is more openly embracing the idea of police body cameras after previously saying he didn't believe they were needed in Boston.

Speaking to The Boston Globe editorial board Thursday, Walsh endorsed the idea of a pilot program for police body cameras, the paper said. Here's what he told the editorial board:

Maybe I didn’t approach it quite the way I should have. Everything is on the table on how policing is done. The president has a tough job and I want to be supportive.

Walsh's latest comments strike a different tone than statements he made on Monday after meeting with President Obama, along with other mayors and activists in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision. As we reported, Walsh told the Globe he was not ready to embrace body cameras and didn't believe they could help with fundamental problems between communities and law enforcement.

Here's what he told the Globe on Monday (Dec. 1):

The body camera is a tool that can be used, [but] it goes a lot deeper than that ... I'm not going to be distracted by having a conversation about whether or not police have body cameras.

Walsh added then that he wanted to focus on community relations, jobs and education.

In a phone interview Friday, Walsh spokeswoman Kate Norton said his new comments are "not an about face" and the mayor has been open to the idea, but doesn't believe body cameras are "the magic solution."

In a press conference Tuesday morning about his newly created Office of Diversity, Walsh expanded on the idea of addressing deeper community issues. Here's what he said:

I've said this over the last couple of days now. Body cameras is one tool that can be used in policing. I think the issue goes a lot deeper than body cameras. I think we talk what's going on in the community. We can talk about putting body cameras on police officers, it doesn't solve the problem of inequity in communities. It doesn't solve the problems of lack of education in communities. It doesn't solve the problem of what we're talking about here today in communities. I think we have to go a little deeper than that... I'm not taking a position on it now. I don't think that's the issue that really needs to be dealt with. I think the issue that has to be dealt with is inequity... body cameras isn't the only answer to the solution, there's a lot deeper problems than body cameras.

His comments this week differed from his statements in a phone interview with WBUR ahead of the Ferguson grand jury decision.

Here's what he said then, on Nov. 20:

No. I don’t think [police body cameras are] needed in Boston today. It’s a tool that people are talking about. There’s an experiment going on in Worcester right now in the city of Worcester with body cameras. That’s something that we’ll see what shows with that experiment. I don’t necessarily feel the body cameras are needed right now. Again, I think it’s all premature to talk that way. Let’s see what happens with the grand jury and what the grand jury decides here.

Equipping police officers with body cameras has become a central topic of discussion since the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Many believe the body cameras will provide transparency, increase trust between police and community members and resolve conflicting witness accounts of an police encounter. To that end, the government has taken steps to begin embracing the technology. On Monday, President Obama asked Congress for $263 million for police body cameras, training and police reform resources — $75 million of that would be used specifically to equip 50,000 or more officers with body cameras.

Back in September, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidelines on police body cameras for law enforcement agencies deciding whether to implement them. That report, issued by the department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), said the decision to implement body cameras should not be "entered into lightly," noting that cameras can raise expectations about the availability of the video records as well as privacy and policy issues.

The report also cited cases where the use of body cameras reduced the number of complaints and helped resolve officer-involved incidents. The Rialto, California, police department had a 60 percent reduction in officers using force and an 88 percent reduction in the amount of complaints against the police during a yearlong study where they implemented body cameras. Further, the study found the work shifts where body cameras were not used had twice as many use of force incidents as the shifts where the cameras were used. Another study in Mesa, Arizona, found that officers with body cameras had 40 percent fewer complaints against them and 75 percent fewer use of force complaints against them than officers without body cameras — who had nearly three times more complaints against them.

Since the Ferguson case, cities across the country have taken steps to implement body cameras. Norton said there have been some conversations about the devices in Boston.

"We have to look at it," Norton said. "We don’t have enough information now to say yes we're going to do this or no we're not going to do this."

For what it's worth, the existence of video during a fatal police chokehold applied to Eric Garner in New York has not quelled controversy over his death. Some say that case weakens the argument for police body cameras while others say the case does not remove the need for the cameras.

Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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