Nearly a year ago, the mayor promised Boston police officers would soon be required to wear body cameras during overtime shifts. Today, the rule change remains stalled, leaving tens of thousands of hours worked by Boston police undocumented.
Last October, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh cited camera battery life constraints as the problem preventing the roll out. Last week, his office said the city has to get buy-in from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association — the union representing most officers that took the city to court and lost in 2016 over the force’s body camera pilot.
It’s unclear when those discussions started. The union didn’t return multiple requests from WBUR for comment.
The delay in expanding the BPD’s body camera policy to include overtime shifts also indicates there likely will be obstacles ahead as the city explores other proposed policing reforms. This includes an even stronger body camera policy that the Boston Police Reform Task Force, a group convened by Walsh this year, recommended in September.
And beyond debate around reforms, there remain questions about how reliably Boston officers are following existing body camera policy.
In February, Juston Root, a 41-year-old with a history of mental illness, was fatally shot by police. Between the two chaotic scenes that preceded his death, six Boston police officers and a state trooper each fired their weapons. Only one officer had her body camera running.
Two other Boston officers were assigned cameras that day. One did not even wear his camera. The other never hit record.
Jack McDevitt, a Northeastern University criminology professor who evaluated Boston’s body camera pilot in 2018, said it “strains credulity” that an officer wouldn’t wear or turn on their camera in a high-risk call.
“That’s exactly the kind of situation where you want to have the camera [on] to protect yourself, as well as to document what went on between you and the suspect,” he said.
A Boston police spokesman, Sgt. Detective John Boyle, declined to say whether either of the officers are facing scrutiny or discipline for not wearing or turning their cameras on, citing the department’s ongoing investigation of the shooting.
Boyle said this week that since the body camera program began there have been four internal affairs investigations into body camera usage. One was sustained; the other unfounded.
Two others are still open. WBUR requested information from the department about the investigations after Boyle said he could not provide details about them.
If the task force recommendations to implement a stronger body camera policy go into effect, all uniformed officers, including supervisors, will have to wear cameras during any shift, including overtime and detail work. And the cameras would always be running, except if an officer is taking a break or needs to protect the privacy of a person they’re speaking with.
Allison Cartwright, head attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Roxbury office, was among those evaluating the city’s body camera program. She said the task force didn’t want to make any distinction between overtime or regular shifts.
“We ... felt that it was important that while you’re working, you need to have your body camera on,” she said.
Cartwright said the panel wasn’t thinking of specific scenarios like the Root shooting, but as a public defender, she knows the importance of having footage when there are conflicting reports.
“If a picture speaks a thousand words, these videos speak a million,” Cartwright said. “They can really flesh out what happens in these encounters.”
A lawsuit filed by Root’s family maintains that he never brandished a weapon or made a threatening gesture in the moments before officers shot at him 31 times in Chestnut Hill; officers who fired said they were in fear of their lives after seeing what they thought might be a gun.
The task force also recommended the department “develop clear procedures and consequences” for violations of the policy. That progressive discipline should affect promotions and salary increases, the group wrote.
The department conducts “periodic audits” of body camera compliance, Boyle said, but he did not have more information about how often those occur or how they're done. The official policy doesn’t say much more.
McDevitt, the researcher, said any good body camera program includes regular audits and spot checks of compliance — and real discipline if officers fall short. Some departments, including New Orleans and Los Angeles, complete regular audits of compliance that are released to the public. Las Vegas police officers are required to meet a minimum compliance rate, and if they fall below it, an audit is triggered.
There is skepticism as to whether the task force proposals will come to fruition. The panel did not meet with any leaders of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the largest Boston police union. The task force did, however, include two Boston police officers: Superintendent Dennis White and Sgt. Eddy Chrispin, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. Both said they’ve spoken to other officers about the recommendations.
“Overall, I believe most of the officers believe that change was coming, and I have positive views from members,” White said. “I mean, there are going to be some that are going to resist change.”
Experts who study body cameras and policing said they’re perplexed by the police union’s resistance to body cameras. Michael White, a professor at Arizona State University and co-director of the U.S. Department of Justice Body-Worn Camera Training and Technical Assistance Team, has reviewed more than 400 policies for departments across the U.S.
White (no relation to the police superintendent) said compared to Boston, unions elsewhere largely have not been as anti-camera.
“Whatever resistance there is is almost immediately overcome when officers start wearing cameras, because the vast majority of the time it shows what officers are doing correctly and it protects them from frivolous complaints and has tremendous evidentiary value,” he said. “So the resistance that's still coming from the Boston union — I don't really understand it.”
“Overall, I believe most of the officers believe that change was coming, and I have positive views from members. I mean, there are going to be some that are going to resist change.”Boston police superintendent Dennis White
Shekia Scott co-founded the Boston Police Camera Action Team to push for a body camera program in the city. It took five years. Today, Scott said she’s disappointed to see it isn’t as comprehensive as the group hoped, and she doubted the task force’s broader recommendations will have any effect — though she placed no blame on the task force members.
“It’s a system,” she said. “And the system doesn’t seem to want to change.”
Cartwright, the task force member, was more optimistic. None of the task force members want to see the group's proposals fizzle out.
“I have a lot of confidence that this is going to take root, and it’s going to grow,” she said.
Officers working overtime patrol the same streets, respond to the same calls and ride alongside officers working regular shifts. Yet they don't wear body cameras.
After WBUR reported a year ago that officers who worked a collective 9,000 hours of overtime at the so-called “Straight Pride” parade weren’t wearing body cameras, Mayor Walsh said that would be fixed.
“Before this time next year every officer will have body cameras,” he said.
He said the problem centered on the battery life of the camera, and that more cameras were on order.
“The extra cameras fix that,” Walsh said back then. “We don’t have the extra cameras that have the battery charge on them. Now we will have them.”
That never happened.
A Walsh spokesperson said this week that the department was working to get cameras on officers working overtime, but the police department and city needs to notify officers and bargain with the union. The city said that process has begun. The city and the union are negotiating a new contract, after the patrolmen’s three-year contract expired earlier this year.
“Mayor Walsh is fully supportive of body cameras being worn by officers during all shifts, including overtime, and Boston police are actively working toward that goal,” the spokesperson said.
City councilors Andrea Campbell and Lydia Edwards last year called for hearings on the use of body cameras — though none ever happened. Edwards said this week that the expansion to overtime is “low-hanging fruit” in the call for police reform. She said she’s baffled as to why the city hasn’t made this happen yet.
She said there’s no difference between an officer’s work on overtime or regular duty.
“Is there a distinction in the tax dollars I pay?” Edwards said. “Because to me, you’re still working for the people of Boston. And so part of that is being transparent and being held accountable.”
A Shooting That Went Mostly Undocumented
There’s perhaps no better example of the danger officers working overtime or detail shifts can find themselves in than the Feb. 7 shooting of Juston Root.
In the midst of a police chase and a report of a man with a gun outside a Boston hospital, it was one of the least experienced officers who had the foresight to hit the button to start rolling. Brenda Figueroa, who was then less than two years out of the academy, was the only officer whose body camera recorded the moment shots were fired.
“I still have the mind to press on my body camera, just in case,” she told investigators days after the shooting. “Because … the dispatcher had informed us that someone was hurt, someone had been shot at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.”
Two other officers were also working their regular shifts that day and should have been recording. Joseph McMenamy wore his camera, but apparently never hit record before the shooting. Investigators didn’t press him on why.
Officer David Godin, a 20-year police veteran, wasn’t even wearing his camera. He left it in a bag inside his cruiser.
“I don’t keep it on my body unless I get out for a call,” he told investigators.
Godin was the officer who first approached Root at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, before the chase and shooting that ended in Chestnut Hill. Surveillance footage showed Root pointing a gun at Godin, who then shot at Root. The gun Root held would later turn out to be fake.
Earlier this year, the Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said none of the officers did anything criminally wrong when they chased Root to Chestnut Hill and shot him 31 times in a parking lot.
Morrissey said in a statement to WBUR that even though body camera footage can’t capture every angle, it’s a very helpful tool in an investigation.
“The more angles and lines of sight and information that investigators have available in piecing events together, the greater the level of confidence for both investigators and the public,” he said.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ office is still investigating the shooting that occurred at Brigham and Women’s, where Godin and another officer — who was on a detail assignment and so not assigned a camera — fired their guns. One of them accidentally shot a valet in the head. That man survived.
"I wish that [officers] would just put them on because they’re there to help them."Jennifer Root Bannon
In a statement, Rollins didn’t speak directly to the Root case but said body-worn camera footage is an important piece of evidence.
“I sincerely hope that [body-worn cameras] will soon be required when officers are on overtime,” she said. “BWCs help keep our communities safe and help to administer justice fairly and equitably. That is always a good thing.”
In a lawsuit filed against the five Boston officers and state trooper involved in the Chestnut Hill shooting, Root’s family highlights the lack of body camera footage.
Root’s sister, Jennifer Root Bannon, told WBUR that had more officers been recording, it could have captured critical moments — like the movements her brother allegedly made that led officers to open fire.
“I wish that they would just put them on because they’re there to help them,” she said. “That’s the whole thing — being transparent and actually capturing what’s happened. So if everything’s on the up and up, then there’s no problem wearing them.”
This segment aired on October 7, 2020.