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Boston Police Has No Formal Policy To Check Body Camera Compliance 

A Boston police officer at the protests against police brutality on May 31 is seen wearing a body camera. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A Boston police officer at the protests against police brutality on May 31 is seen wearing a body camera. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In a year and a half, Boston police has completed just one investigation into an officer's misuse of his body camera. And without a policy in place, it’s not clear how the department is making sure other officers are using the cameras correctly.

That investigation, which centered on one officer’s repeated failures to turn his camera on or properly label videos, was launched during the first month of the program. It was a public records request, filed in June of 2019 by a local TV station, that first alerted the department to the officer’s violations.

Since then, Boston police said it opened up two other internal investigations into body camera use. Neither have been completed, and the department declined to provide more information.

A Boston police spokesman said the department’s auditing and review unit conducts “sporadic” or “periodic” checks into officer compliance with its body camera program. Despite repeated requests for details about how or when these audits or checks were performed, the department spokesman said he couldn’t elaborate. The auditing and review unit was not made available for comment. Boston police has no written policies or memos, the department said, that spell out how exactly it tracks body camera compliance.

Experts in the use of body cameras say compliance checks are crucial to a well-functioning program. Other large departments, including New Orleans and Los Angeles, perform regular audits that are released to the public.

Michael White, who has read hundreds of body-worn camera policies as co-director of training for the Department of Justice’s body camera policy and implementation program, said any policy without auditing for compliance is “deficient.”

White said often, supervisors are required to review a certain number of videos per week or month. More than 80% of agency policies reviewed by White give supervisors the ability to review officers’ footage to check compliance.

“There's some sort of random review of footage to make sure that … the officer is complying with other parts of the policy,” he said.

He said most issues are minor and usually result in an informal reprimand or retraining.

Boston’s policy specifically forbids bureau chiefs, supervisors and internal affairs investigators from randomly reviewing footage for disciplinary purposes. However, Boston does allow supervisors to review footage to approve police reports, and commanding officers or their designees can “review [body-worn camera] activity logs and reports to ensure officers remain in compliance with Department policy and training.” It doesn’t note how often, when or how that review is done.

"The whole purpose of the body camera program for us was accountability and transparency. And the only way you have that is if you have a system in place to make that happen."

Segun Idowu

Expanding the body camera program was the top priority of the Boston Police Reform Task Force, a panel convened by Mayor Marty Walsh this summer, said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a task force member.

The final recommendations — which Walsh said he’ll fully adopt within the suggested deadline of six months — include requiring a camera on every uniformed officer, expanding access to footage by those who are captured on video and creating clear discipline for violating the body camera policy. The recommendations didn’t specifically address how to make sure officers are using the cameras correctly, but Brown said it’s in the department’s interest to check.

“I think that would make a lot of sense, to have some written policy that would be a quality control of the officers wearing body cameras,” he said.

Segun Idowu, an activist who co-founded the Boston Police Camera Action Team in 2014, said cameras alone without compliance aren’t enough.

“The whole purpose of the body camera program for us was accountability and transparency,” he said. “And the only way you have that is if you have a system in place to make that happen.”

Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association president Larry Calderone has said that body cameras have exonerated Boston officers accused of misconduct, but didn’t provide any examples. Calderone didn't respond to requests for comment.

Walsh’s office didn’t respond to questions about how the city's police ensure compliance with its body camera program. His office sent a similar statement to one previously provided to WBUR when the mayor was asked about officers not wearing body cameras on overtime shifts, despite earlier promises the policy would be changed.

"One year after implementing a body camera program, more than 1,000 officers have been trained and equipped with body cameras across districts, including the bike unit and other specialized units,” the statement said. “As I’ve said, I’m fully supportive of body cameras being worn by officers during all shifts, including overtime, and Boston Police are actively working toward that goal."

A Single Investigation Completed

In Boston, the only finished investigation into body camera usage was triggered by a public records request for footage, internal affairs records show. The department received a records request from WBZ-TV on June 5, 2013 for a bank robbery in South Boston that occurred two days before — the first day of the new body camera program.

Officer Dana Lamb, a 31-year veteran who was then working district C-6 in South Boston, responded to the robbery. But he never turned his camera on.

A police department review of Lamb’s calls at the end of that month found there were 11 incidents that June where he either failed to record or, if he did, didn’t categorize the videos correctly.

Those calls he failed to record included a traffic stop, vandalism reports, a disturbance on a roadway and help for an injured person. He also miscategorized videos: A dispute over a towed vehicle was classified as a bank robbery. Others weren’t categorized at all.

Lamb told investigators after the South Boston bank robbery that he likely turned the camera off by accident. In the other cases, he said he either didn’t know he had to record the incidents, or didn’t recall them. He said he was “fuzzy” on how to title and categorize the videos, as required. WBUR’s attempts to reach Lamb for comment were unsuccessful.

Officers grappling with body camera problems are required to report the issues to the department, but Lamb did not.

Lamb received training on how to use the cameras the previous month, but he admitted he wasn’t able to complete the training successfully. A police superintendent wrote that Lamb also was given remedial training on the technology three times.

“Officer Lamb continues to demonstrate an inability to follow department policy in the use of his assigned body camera and has not performed his duty to properly document his videos,” the superintendent wrote.

Lamb received an oral reprimand and retraining. The discipline was finalized this past July. He’s now assigned to the building security unit.

The calls Lamb failed to record were relatively minor. But other Boston police officers were involved in at least one critical incident that recently went unrecorded: the fatal police shooting of Juston Root in February.

Two Boston officers assigned cameras that day didn’t turn them on before the shooting. It’s unclear if those are the two open investigations into body camera use.

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Ally is a reporter who champions data and public records in the WBUR newsroom.

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