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Body camera pilot gets first community meeting

Much of usage policy remains under discussion

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Body camera pilot gets first community meeting
Rahsaan Hall of the ACLU of Massachusetts was among audience members who spoke at the Roslindale Community Center meeting.

Police-worn body cameras are coming to Boston. Residents were given their first public chance to add their voice on Monday night at a community meeting convened by chair of the city council’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice, Andrea Campbell. Their concerns will affect the emerging policy for the camera pilot program.

More than 30 people gathered for the meeting in the basement of Roslindale Community Center. Much of the audience comprised those already versed in the discussion: representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Boston Police Camera Action Team, as well as four members of the Social Justice Task Force, a volunteer group invited by Police Commissioner William Evans to represent community voice in developing the pilot program. Several elected officials also joined the audience for part of the meeting.

Jack McDevitt, Social Justice Task Force member and City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Tim McCarthy answered questions at the meeting.

Running the meeting and answering questions were Campbell; Tim McCarthy, vice chair of the Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice; Jack Devitt, representative of the Social Justice Task Force and director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice; and Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George. Campbell said she aims to present a draft policy for public feedback before implementing the pilot — which may mean body-worn cameras are not tried out until June or July. Two more community meetings were scheduled for this week as well as a public hearing in May, with more to be added as necessary, she said.

While many officials and task force members seemed to expect the pilot would lead into a full camera roll-out, several also said that would hinge on continued public support.

“If we don’t get the pilot program right, it can jeopardize having a final program,” Campbell said.

Many details — such as how long footage would be stored and the nature of privacy protections — remain under debate. Officials and task force members said they welcomed community response on such topics. They also urged attendees to regard the pilot as a chance to gather information and test-drive logistics, usage policy and equipment, and not see practices used in the pilot as dictating what any final body camera program will be.

The concretes

The BPD and social justice task force have reviewed camera policies in other cities, including Las Vegas and New York City, in shaping their discussions about the pilot.

According to information presented at the meeting, 100 patrol officers across the city — including those from drug and gang units — will be equipped with the devices for six months. Campbell emphasized that the cameras will be deployed in neighborhoods beyond Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, with task force member Rev. Mark Scott proposing East Boston and Charlestown.

Cameras will be used to film interactions between officers and civilians such as those occurring at vehicle stops, person stops and searches, arrests and use of force incidents. In addition to interactions where recording is required, “Officers will have discretion to turn the camera on during any citizen contact the officer deems appropriate” and may, at their discretion, turn the camera off to protect sensitive or confidential information, according to a fact sheet distributed at the meeting.

Because requiring officers to wear the cameras would necessitate a change in the collective bargaining contract, the pilot relies on volunteers, said Josh Dohan, task force member and public for Committee for Public Counsel Services. Many attendees, including Shekia Scott, co-founder of BPCAT, and members of the ACLU, regarded using volunteers as a worrisome practice and pointed out that a measure to improve police accountability is unlikely to capture the main perpetrators of misconduct if it only applies to those who want to participate.

Speaking to the Banner before the hearing, Rashaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said a pilot that equips only volunteers is a major concern of the ACLU.

At a glance

Social Justice Task Force members include:

  • Jack McDevitt, Northeastern University director of Institute on Race and Justice and associate dean of research and graduate studies
  • Darnell Williams, Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts president and CEO
  • Rev. Jack Ahern, Holy Family, St. Peter and Blessed Mother Teresa parishes pastor
  • Michael Curry, NAACP Boston branch president
  • Susan Young, Hyde Park resident
  • Josh Dohan, Committee for Public Counsel Services public defender
  • Rev. Mark Scott, Azusa Christian Community pastor
  • As well as six police command staff members and ten other non-police community members

“It’s harder to really accurately assess the effectiveness of the cameras when it’s only on the officers who are intentionally being a part of this process,” he said.

Here, Dohan urged attendees to see the pilot as a measure to gather information and said any final policy would not be volunteer-based.

“In a pilot, without collective bargaining, you’ve got to go with who volunteers, and then you’ve got to understand the limits of the data you’re collecting,” Dohan said. “We have to be realistic that it’s all a prelude to mandatory comprehensive body camera usage, assuming everybody is still on board for that after the pilot.”

In the meantime, program managers will solicit 200 volunteers, with half reserved as a camera-free control group and the others equipped, according to McDevitt. This will give them similar groups to compare — i.e., the kinds of officers willing to try cameras — even if it may not capture the impact of camera usage on officers who have received the most misconduct complaints. They also will look at the complaint history of officers to see if there is a difference between those who are and are not volunteering, McDevitt said. He told the Banner he did not anticipate any difficulty finding enough volunteers, although he did mention that out of New York City’s more than 34,000 officers only 54 volunteered for its body-worn camera pilot program.

In addition to policy, the pilot also will assess the practical side of the program. Officers will use camera equipment from at least two vendors, to compare effectiveness, and will evaluate two forms of storage: both cloud-based, via a network of servers, and at police headquarters. An analysis of the financial and operational aspects of the program is expected to be completed in the next six months, said John Daley, chief technology officer with the BPD. The majority of the costs, McCarthy noted, will be for handling data, including storage and encryption.

Anthony Braga, professor at Rutgers University and Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University, will conduct the cost-benefit analysis and effectiveness evaluation of the pilot. Among the considerations Braga will examine are citizen complaints, use of force, community satisfaction and police-community interactions, according to the fact sheet.

Lingering questions

Many important policy details have yet to be worked out, including under what circumstances cameras should be turned off, and whether camera deployment should focus on the units that engage in more frequent stops and difficult situations or be widely distributed.

Among the questions raised: How long should footage be stored? An undercover detective, who opposed cameras, said at the meeting that an effective program would have to retain videos for years.

“We get complaints in police department that are four or five years old,” he said.

Another officer stated that there is no time limit after which complaints cannot be filed against an officer. According to McDevitt, under most pilot programs, if footage has not been flagged as the subject of a complaint or use of force it will be destroyed after three to six months, while flagged videos will be retained forever.

“I don’t think we have a policy yet but we have lots of questions about what should be in the policy,” McDevitt said.

Meanwhile, BPCAT, in conjunction with the ACLU, presented city officials with a camera usage policy last August, which BPCAT members have said was developed through months of outreach to residents and which responds to questions and concerns and met widespread community approval.

Next up

Community meeting: Thursday, April 28th, 6 to 8 p.m. at First Parish Church of Dorchester, 10 Parish St, Dorchester

Hearing: Tuesday, May 3, 4 p.m. at City Hall

Next up

Movement is underway to secure equipment and their implementation: Police union contracts expire June 30 and the BPD is negotiating the use of body cameras into the next ones, McCarthy said. Campbell also said a request for proposals was just issued for body camera vendors.

Next up is a city council hearing on May 3 at 4 p.m. Segun Idowu, co-founder of BPCAT, and Hall said a hearing would be especially significant, in part because everything will be on the record, and, he added, would likely produce more answers on the pilot policy.

“To have no answers at all is mindboggling,” Idowu told the Banner after the hearing.