When someone dies in a violent encounter with police, people have come to expect to see the video.
A police body camera captured Daniel Prude’s death after he was physically restrained by police in Albany, New York last year. In Minneapolis, both police and private cameras caught officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck — footage that will likely play a central role in Chauvin’s trial starting this week.
But police in Massachusetts are much less likely to record incidents on cameras. Despite a nationwide push to use body cams to help hold police accountable, only a fraction of departments in the Bay State have deployed the technology.
“It's bewildering,” said Charu Verma, a defense attorney and co-chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s criminal justice council. “We have MIT right here. Why don't we have body [cameras]?"
A U.S. Department of Justice report five years ago found the vast majority of the 15,000 police departments across the country used either body cams or cruiser dashboard cams. And experts say the number is almost certainly higher now.
Yet among Massachusetts' roughly 480 law enforcement agencies, only about a dozen have body cameras and even fewer have dashboard cameras, though that number is slowly starting to increase.
State police started outfitting officers with body cams this month. Springfield’s officers began wearing cameras last June. And after years of negotiations, Somerville reached an agreement to deploy body cams last week.
“It's bewildering. We have MIT right here. Why don't we have body [cameras]?"Charu Verma, defense attorney
So, why haven’t more departments in the state embraced the technology?
“It's one of the things I've not been able to get my head around,” said West Brookfield Police Chief Tom O’Donnell, whose six full-time and four part-time officers wear cameras.
O’Donnell suspects it might be a fear of change. “It's that Yankee mentality.”
Police leaders cited other roadblocks, including the cost of the programs and the need to reach agreements with labor unions.
Lawrence received $112,000 from the federal government in 2018 to start a body camera program. But it’s still in the research phase, Chief Roy Vasque said.
“There's a bunch of different things that need to happen,” Vasque said. “A big part of it is the unions. And a huge, even bigger, looming part of that is the funding.”
Police say the cameras are surprisingly costly, when you add in the price of maintenance, storage and the personnel to sift through footage.
“These are all great ideas, but they're expensive,” Mark Leahy, the executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the former Northborough police chief, who called on the state to provide more funding and support for the programs. “There's always going to be those well-heeled communities that can afford this and other communities who can't.”
Departments have also sometimes encountered resistance from labor unions, who argue camera deployment needs to be negotiated with workers. Boston’s union unsuccessfully took the city to court in 2016, for instance, over a pilot program with 100 officers. Two of the state’s biggest unions, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.
Some law enforcement officials insist cameras are less vital here than in some other states because there have been fewer violent encounters with police.
Massachusetts police officers have killed 61 people over the last eight years, according to data compiled by Mapping Police Violence. That's the second lowest rate in the country.
“This isn't where the problems have been,” Leahy said. “But you would never know that if you watched the whole debate with police reform, you would assume that we're just out shooting people all the time.”
Still, advocates insist cameras are needed to hold police accountable.
For instance, one video obtained by a defense attorney showed a Boston police officer saying he hit protesters with his car during a protest for racial justice last summer. Other footage captured officers using batons and pepper spray against the crowd, as some protesters threw bottles and fireworks at officers.
Some police departments praise the technology, for providing both transparency and valuable evidence to prosecute suspects or exonerate officers accused of misconduct. And with so many people recording officers already on their cellphones, police leaders say it makes sense to have cameras themselves.
“This isn't where the problems have been. But you would never know that if you watched the whole debate with police reform, you would assume that we're just out shooting people all the time.”Mark Leahy, Mass. Chiefs Of Police Association
Still, even when departments do use cameras, it can sometimes be difficult to obtain the recordings. Boston police generally decline to provide any footage tied to an open case, even in situations like a suspect dragging and pinning an officer with his car. They sometimes charge steep fees to review and redact the video. And officers don’t always use the cameras for their entire shifts.
Some of those who pushed most fiercely for body cameras a few years ago have reconsidered.
Shekia Scott was a founder of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, which helped persuade Boston to start using body cams. But today, Scott wonders whether the cameras are worth the expense, particularly after watching cases where police were caught on video killing people and still avoiding going to prison.
“None of this is working,” she said. “We are just trying to add Band-Aids onto huge deep wounds that we're not going to be able to solve by adding more technology.”
This segment aired on March 31, 2021.
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