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Officers, MA state officials divided over new bill seeking to standardize police body-cam usage

Police body cam (Ryan Johnson/WikiCommons)

A new bill under consideration would seek to create a “uniform code” for the use of body-worn cameras by Massachusetts law enforcement officers. But a provision of the bill protecting the footage from public view is attracting the ire of state officials as well as members of the media.

“I anticipate any standards that go into place will embody the fundamental rules that pertain to all forms of evidence,” said state Rep. Denise Provost, the Somerville lawmaker behind the bill.

A body-worn camera, or body cam, is a small recording device that attaches to an officer’s uniform either near the collar or in the middle of the chest, that captures audio and video from the officer’s perspective while they are on duty. The files are then stored for a period of time determined by the department.

Provost spoke at a public hearing for the bill on July 11, before the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. She stressed that the way a police officer behaves with a member of the public is expected to be consistent in all situations and in all cities and towns, and such should be the case with the way body cameras are used.

“It should not matter where in the state an individual has a police encounter how body camera video footage is treated,” she told the committee.

Nine Massachusetts law enforcement agencies are now using body cameras in some form, either as an official practice or in a pilot program. Cambridge is not one of those agencies, since the department has not received very much interest from the community about camera use, according to Jeremy Warnick, director of communications for the Cambridge Police Department.

“It goes back to the city’s surveillance ordinance and really getting a sense of what the community wants,” said Warnick. “At this stage, we haven’t received extensive interest from the community in terms of us carrying these. But it’s something we’re open minded to, for sure.”

Back in December 2018, Cambridge City Council passed an ordinance that requires all city departments to get approval, with public input, before implementing any new surveillance technology. The American Civil Liberties Union called the law’s passage a “victory” and praised city officials for their “commitment to local democracy.”

The state bill that’s now on the table, H.2120, would establish the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force, which would develop regulations around body camera use, adopt minimum requirements for their procurement and define rules for the storage and transfer of audio and video recordings collected through the use of the cameras.

The task force would consist of 17 members, including state lawmakers, law enforcement officials and representatives from both the ACLU of Massachusetts and the NAACP.

Does one size fit all?

Most of the communities in the state with camera-equipped police officers are smaller municipalities with fewer than 15,000 residents, including Ipswich in Essex County, West Brookfield in Worcester County, Sherborn in Middlesex County and Lakeville in Plymouth County. Methuen, with a population of nearly 50,000, also uses cameras.

But larger departments are starting to adopt cameras as well. Boston, after a year-long pilot program, started rolling out cameras earlier this spring. Both Worcester and the Massachusetts State Police began pilot programs within the past few months, and Springfield began soliciting bids for a police body camera system July 17.

Critics of Provost’s bill point to the universal nature of the regulations as not being in the best interest of police agencies, given that sizes of departments and population demographics can vary greatly across the state.

Larry Calderone, vice president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said at the July 11 hearing he did not think a uniform approach to body cameras would work, given the different populations, crime rates and municipal budgets of various communities.

“I urge you to consider that larger, urban communities differ greatly from smaller, suburban communities,” he said. “Areas such as Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Worcester and Springfield have different issues and needs with respect to their citizenry, than communities such as Barre, Hadley or Stockbridge. While all communities strive to protect their citizens and their rights, a one-size-fits-all approach to body cameras is not the best answer.”

Chief Paul Nikas of the Ipswich Police Department said “general guidelines” could be helpful for departments adopting body cameras, but he sees the benefit of local agencies forming their own policies.

“A generic policy of best practices would make sense, then let departments fine-tune it,” Nikas said. “That’s a pretty common way to do things.”

The Ipswich Police Department has been “fully deployed” with enough body cameras for every officer since 2016. Nikas said he worked with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to help develop a 10-page policy that covers everything from what should and should not be recorded, specifications on storage of the files and how the files should be accessed and used as evidence.

Nikas said he also reached out to the Massachusetts ACLU for guidance on the policy, but the policy is 100 percent the product of his department.

“It’s ours,” Nikas said. “Other departments would no doubt come up with many of the same policies, but there are several decision points that we felt worked best for us, which is why we did it that way.”

Provost said it can often be a “hodgepodge” when departments seek outside guidance on internal policies. Some, she said, even look to out-of-state vendors when drafting their own regulations on body camera usage.

Bridgewater Chief of Police Christopher Delmonte said that while his department does not use body cameras now, he is always considering new technologies to improve service. He sees the benefits cameras could provide.

He said since he has no firsthand experiences with body cameras he could not say if a one-size-fits-all approach to regulations would work, but even within his own department there is a wide range of calls to which police respond.

“Every situation is different,” Delmonte said. “‘Life’ takes place in all cities and towns. And by ‘life,’ I mean the types of things that come up in the course of the day that officers deal with. Domestic violence, substance abuse, things like that. Every police department faces these issues, so I understand that every situation is different.”

A matter of public record?

The very last line of Provost’s bill states that the Massachusetts General Laws should add “any recordings made by a body camera, dashboard camera, or any similar device by a law enforcement officer” to its list of materials exempt from the state’s public records law. This point was raised numerous times at the July 11 hearing, with multiple people speaking against it.

Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees public records enforcement, wrote to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee the day before the hearing asking it to remove that language from the bill.

Galvin called the exemption “completely unwarranted and unacceptable,” saying body cameras are intended to create more transparency in law enforcement. He said protections exist in state law to allow sensitive information that may be captured to be withheld — for instance, if it could be used to identify witnesses or victims.

“Allowing police departments to withhold any footage captured on these cameras would interfere with the public’s ability to oversee their own government,” Galvin said. “This is an issue of particular importance to minority communities, and withholding videos of police interactions would only breed mistrust. This is an area where we need more transparency, not less.”

Delmonte said the transparency cameras provide can also work in an officer’s favor.

“Some say cops might have a fear over being recorded because of how they might act, but I don’t see it that way at all,” he said. “If anything, I think cameras could show exactly what law enforcement officials are up against every day. It shows people what it’s like to be on our side of things, which is sometimes overlooked.”

The New England First Amendment Coalition sent a letter to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee on July 18 opposing the bill.

“Despite improvements to the public records statute in 2016, Massachusetts continues to lag behind most of the country in government transparency,” according to the letter, which was co-signed by the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England Newspaper & Press Association. “A primary example of our Commonwealth’s culture of secrecy is the fact that Massachusetts is the only state where all three branches of government — executive, legislative and judiciary — are exempt or claim to be exempt from the public records law. With the passage of House Bill 2120, Massachusetts would become even more of an outlier. “

The letter claims that passage of the bill could give Massachusetts the strictest restrictions on body camera footage in the country, despite the “tremendous public interest” that can often be served by releasing camera footage.

Several examples were cited in the letter of cases where body camera footage shaped the outcome of investigations. This included cases where police were found guilty of misconduct (such as an officer in Florida who was recorded planting evidence) and where officers were exonerated of charges (such as a state trooper in Texas who was cleared after allegations of sexual misconduct were proven to be false).

Delmonte said he sees both sides of the issue. On the one hand, he said, some may feel that true transparency only exists if you make recordings fully available to the public, unless they interfere with an open investigation or put people at risk. But he realizes that officers often find themselves in sensitive situations where discretion would be advisable.

“As a citizen myself, I understand we don’t necessarily want our worst moments captured on camera and open to the public to view online,” he said. “And that’s often what we are dealing with — people in their very worst and vulnerable moments.”

One such moment Provost points to occurred in Somerville several years ago, which involved a SWAT team responding to a house on an arrest warrant.

The team pulled an individual out of a first-floor apartment, only to find it was not the suspect they were looking for. Additional people were pulled out of a second-floor apartment, including children.

“It was a situation where you had people in their pajamas being pulled out of their homes and standing on the street. Some were children, standing out there frightened,” Provost said. “Should those people have their personal trauma splashed all over YouTube for the world to see?”

Ultimately, Provost said, the task force would be put in place to make things easier for police and also help protect citizens.

“Police body cameras are a form of government surveillance, and any time that issue comes up there is going to be tension that comes with it,” she said. “We need to negotiate that tension as best we can. This isn’t about regulating every single aspect of the issue. It’s about putting in guardrails where they need to be.”


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