Worcester police department body camera program is live. Here's what you need to know
Worcester police went live with body cameras on Monday, making it the latest police department in Massachusetts to roll out the technology intended to increase police accountability and public trust.
Worcester Police Lieutenant Sean Murtha said police arrests and officers' use of force are "under a lot of scrutiny."
"The main thing that the cameras will be doing is just creating an objective recording of a lot of these instances, which I think is helpful," he said in an interview with WBUR.
Worcester purchased 300 cameras from Axon Enterprises in July 2022 and started officer training in November, Murtha said.
"Now we're ready to launch," he said.
In 2021, less than a dozen of the state's roughly 480 police departments had body cameras. But that number has slowly risen.
Somerville reached an agreement with the police union to implement body-worn cameras with its force in 2021. Last fall, Malden launched its program. And on Saturday, the Lowell Sun reported that the Lowell Police Department will roll out a pilot, which plans to equip 10 officers per shift with body cameras, as early as March.
Such programs have received broad support from the state. In November, former Gov. Charlie Baker awarded nearly $2.5 million to expand the use of body cameras in 32 local police departments.
Worcester's full-fledged body camera program comes after a pilot it ran in 2019.
Here's what to know about the Worcester police department new body camera program:
Does every officer have a body cam?
The Worcester police department has a total of 300 cameras. That covers a majority of the department — there are closer to 450 people in the department, including officials. The officers who interact most with the public will have a camera.
When is the camera on?
Generally, officers have to manually turn on the camera when they are dispatched and perform a police stop, like when they pull someone over, Murtha said. This doesn't include casual conversations, though if a conversation turns into anything that requires formal "police action" then an officer must switch the camera on.
There is a failsafe. If there is sudden movement, like the officer draws their gun or activates their taser, the camera will automatically turn on via bluetooth.
Will police tell someone they're being recorded?
The department's policy recommends that officers tell people they're on camera. However, Murtha said the public should assume that during any dispatch or police stop, the camera is rolling.
If anyone is unsure, he said, people can always ask an officer. "The officer will tell you," Murtha said.
As a two-party consent state, Massachusetts law prohibits the recording of any conversation without both parties' consent. Police body camera recordings do not fall under that rule.
"The cameras aren't secret. They're on the middle of the officers' chest. They're very prominent," Murtha said.
What kind of training did the officers receive?
Department members who will use a body cam received 16 hours of training. Others received four hours of training.
The full training put officers through different scenarios in which they would need to activate the camera. The training, hosted by Axon, also went over how to how to upload the body camera footage to the Axon-hosted cloud storage website and how to prepare reports using the videos.
How can the public access the body camera footage?
Anyone can make a public records request. Videos should be available so long as they doesn't fall within a restricted category, like domestic abuse or sexual assault.
How long will the videos be available?
Videos categorized as "evidence," which are related to criminal cases, will be kept in the cloud indefinitely. Murtha clarified that this means "until the case is totally resolved and there's a request to get rid of it."
Otherwise, other videos will be be available for three-and-a-half years.
What kind of access do officers have to the videos?
At the end of an officer's work day, they must properly dock the camera and upload the footage. All officers have access to the website and can watch the videos, but they can't change anything about the recordings, Murtha said.
With reporting from WBUR's Dave Faneuf.