Boston Police Will Roll Out Body Camera Pilot Program, But Policy Questions Remain
Some Boston police officers will soon be wearing body cameras, as part of a six-month pilot program expected to begin this summer.
The plan calls for equipping 100 officers across the city. The city has allotted $500,000 for the program. And officers who take part in the program will be those who volunteer.
But as the Boston Police Department moves toward outfitting officers with body cameras, there are still a number of policy questions that remain: questions about privacy rights, how the video will be stored and when cameras will be used.
These issues were discussed Thursday night at a community meeting at First Parish Church in Dorchester that was organized by the Boston City Council. More than 50 people attended, including community leaders, police officers and members of the police commissioner's Social Justice Task Force, which has been studying body camera policies.
The Rev. Jack Ahern, who is part of the task force, said many policy issues are still being worked out.
"One of the concerns running has been the concern about privacy," he said. "If a police officer knocks on your door, should he say 'Should I turn the camera on?' So I think it's a work in progress. We don’t really know enough."
The police department has reviewed policies from other cities, including Las Vegas and New York. The department is also looking into body camera technology and has put out a request for proposals, according to Boston Police Deputy Supt. John Daley, who attended the meeting.
"We want to make sure it’s financially responsible, that it does what it needs to do and we can sustain it over time," Daley said. "We hope to have the vendors selected in the next couple of weeks. After that we hope to get the pilot off the ground in July."
Those who attended Thursday's meeting raised a number of questions about the program, such as if victims would have access to the footage. The answer: yes. But answers to other questions — such as "How would the footage would be stored?" and "How will the city determine if the pilot program is successful?" — received less clear answers.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who facilitated the meeting, said she wanted to discuss these issues with the public to gather ideas.
"It was important to me that … before we actually shape a policy related to body cameras that we hear from you, your concerns, your thoughts, take that information back form a policy draft and then come back to you," Campbell said.
Some who attended the meeting also offered suggestions. Hyde Park resident Clifton Braithwaite didn't like the voluntary aspect of the pilot program and said the cameras should be randomly assigned.
"If we want transparency of the cameras and how people really act, it should be, 'This week, it's this group of officers' — no one knows who it's going to be. It should rotate," Braithwaite said.
Most who attended the meeting were in favor of police body cameras.
"It’s more than the cameras catching an officer doing wrong; it can also show you doing wrong to an officer as well," said Shekia Scott, the co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT), which has been pushing for body cams.
There were some who expressed reservations about police body cameras.
Dorchester resident Robert Hanson called body cameras "a Band-Aid" for deeper problems and said they could also be problematic for officers.
"I think it will put a lot of stress on police officers," Hanson said, later adding, "There’s no doubt there's been a lot of police misconduct over the decades. We really need to strengthen laws to make police more accountable when there is misconduct. I think body cameras is not the ultimate way to do it."
The Boston Police Department has also previously expressed reservations about body cameras, often emphasizing its community policing strategy.
Last week, Police Commissioner William Evans said the department doesn’t need body cameras.
“I know the momentum is for everyone having them, although I don’t really think we need them,” Evans told Boston Herald Radio. “I think we’ve shown what kind of a class act department we are, but we are going to give them a try and see if the results are positive.”
Ahern said Thursday that recent shootings in Boston have shown how body cameras could be useful.
"I think initially there were some reservations, especially on the commissioner's part, and over time as we’ve seen other situations in the country and we’ve seen the importance of cameras in some of the critical incidents in that last six months in Boston with the different shootings," Ahern said.
Last year, two high-profile shootings were both captured on surveillance video and later released by police in an effort to show transparency. One incident involved Usaamah Rahim, who was fatally shot by police in Roslindale, and the other involved Angelo West, who was fatally shot by officers in Roxbury after authorities say he shot Officer John Moynihan.
Local activists and community leaders have long been pushing to equip Boston cops with body cameras. Cities across the country have already launched body camera pilot programs. And in Massachusetts, several communities have already started testing out police body cameras.
And while the city works toward developing a body camera policy, local advocacy groups have already drafted their own policy proposals.
Thursday's meeting was the last of three held this week in Boston. Two other meetings were held in Roslindale and Charlestown.
The city council will hold a formal hearing on police body cameras next week. Campbell said they plan to hold more community meetings as the pilot program moves forward.