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The Bay State Banner
The Bay State Banner

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Police union, city agree on body camera pilot policy proposal

ACLU wary on officer access to film but praises privacy protections

Jule Pattison-Gordon

The Boston Police Department, city government and a major police officers union reached an agreement last week that would allow a body-worn camera pilot program to move forward.

The BPD, Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the city government settled on a policy proposal for the pilot, which has evoked mixed responses from civil rights groups. The ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Branch of the NAACP and the Boston Police Camera Action Team issued a press release commending the inclusion of community feedback and certain policy elements, such as privacy protections. But the release also identified several items as problematic, including officer access to footage and level of discretion over when to cease filming.

“We are encouraged by the fact that a majority of the proposed policy from Commissioner William Evans mirrors the proposed community policies of the Boston Police Camera Action Team and the ACLU of Massachusetts,” BPCAT Co-Founder Segun Idowu said in a statement, adding that BPCAT looks forward to the public’s chance to weigh in on the policy before implementation.

Under the agreement, up to 100 volunteer patrol officers would be equipped with cameras for use during most on-duty interactions during a six-month period. Each officer will be paid $500 for participation. The pilot’s effectiveness will be judged based on factors such as the camera’s effect on improving officers’ safety, providing evidence for criminal prosecutions, helping resolve personnel complaints and improving community relations, according to the parties’ July 12 agreement. As of press time, the pilot’s start date had yet to be announced. However, Police Commissioner William Evans told WGBH that he hopes it will begin in early August.

The city has set aside $500,000 in the fiscal year 2017 budget to support the body camera program.

The terms of the agreement are provisional, meaning they apply only to the pilot program. The terms of any future fully-fledged body camera program will need to be renegotiated.

Chair of the City Council Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice Andrea Campbell said in a statement to the Banner that she was pleased an agreement had been reached and that the public will have the opportunity to bring questions and comments on the policy and pilot program. No date has been set yet.

“A hearing will be scheduled with the Boston Police Department and members of the Social Justice Task Force to discuss the policy and pilot logistics and timeline. The hearing will allow advocates and community to ask questions and offer comments on the policy and upcoming pilot program,” Campbell said.

When would cameras be used?

The ACLU in a statement praised the proposed policy from the BPD, BPPA and city hall for its requirement that cameras be used during most potentially adversarial civilian encounters. Under the policy, officers will film on-duty interactions such as vehicular stops, person stops and pat and frisk encounters.

In order to preserve privacy, officers may, at their discretion, choose to stop recording under certain situations. This includes not filming in areas “where there may be a reasonable expectation of privacy” such locker rooms, law offices, day care facilities, places of worship and some areas of hospitals, and in order to protect the privacy of a victim or witness. Officers must state for the camera the reason for ceasing filming. When entering a home without a warrant, officers would have to obtain occupant’s consent to film.

Officers are prohibited from using the videos to identify those caught on footage who are not engaged in unlawful conduct.

The ACLU applauded the policy for including privacy protections, but said in a statement that officers still have too much discretion over when to deactivate cameras.

Who would use cameras?

The police department has said the pilot group of officers wearing cameras will be from a variety of districts and units. Up to 100 volunteers will be equipped. The reliance on paid volunteers is a concern of many body camera proponents, who say this measure will make it difficult to determine if cameras improve police behavior, given that poor-performers are unlikely to sign up.

“We’re still concerned whether or not the pilot is going to yield any results,” Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program of the ACLU, told the Banner. He said a voluntary program runs the risk that no one signs up, or that only the well-behaved do. If the latter, it “would create a self-fulfilling prophecy” that cameras do not improve officer behavior, as there already would be few complaints against such officers, he said.

An earlier plan, explained by Social Task Force Member Jack McDevitt during a community meeting, was to seek 200 police volunteers. Then, 100 of the volunteers would be equipped with cameras, while the other 100 would continue without to serve as a control group. This would allow for comparison of camera impact on pilot participants. However, with respect to the upcoming pilot, BPD spokesperson Lt. Detective Mike McCarthy told the Banner there will be no control group.

When would footage be viewed?

The proposed policy permits officers to review footage before making statements in court or to internal investigations for incidents in which they were involved or witnesses, for the purpose of refreshing their memories, the policy states.

If the officer was engaged in a shooting or use of deadly force, the officers involved and their supervisors may not view the video until investigators first have uploaded it into the system.

Officers also are encouraged to view footage before preparing official reports “to help ensure accuracy and consistency.”

Matt Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, critiqued this policy in a statement, alleging that it will muddy accounts of what the officer actually viewed, versus what the camera captured.

“This encouragement can make it impossible for anyone to know what the officer actually saw — as opposed to what the camera saw — and can even enable officers to change their version of events based on what was or wasn’t captured on camera. Officers should be permitted to review the video only after writing their initial reports, just as civilians are typically not permitted to view video before being interviewed by the police,” Segal said.