City releases body camera study
Mayor noncommittal about implementation
The Boston Police Department has released preliminary results of a body camera pilot project showing that the 120 officers outfitted with the devices were slightly less likely to use force and garnered fewer complaints than a similar number of officers in the study who did not wear the cameras.
The officers outfitted with the body cameras received 17 complaints, compared to 29 complaints received by officers not wearing the cameras.
“The preliminary data bears out a quantifiable decrease in civilian complaints,” said Segun Idowu, whose organization, the Boston Police Camera Action Team, has been pushing for the cameras since 2015.
But while Idowu and other activists are calling for implementation of the cameras across the police department, Mayor Martin Walsh told reporters he is “not convinced” of the need for the devices. His remarks, made recently on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” program, echoed similar reservations the mayor has expressed over the last two years.
Body-worn cameras have been implemented in police departments in most major cities in the United States, as have dashboard-mounted cameras. In Boston, Walsh has consistently voiced skepticism about body cameras, ordering a year-long pilot project after negotiating a compromise with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union.
Civil rights activists have advocated for the cameras in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
In Boston, much of the debate around the usefulness of the cameras centers around the question of whether or not they’re effective at lowering instances of use of force and police abuse that triggers citizen complaints.
In his remarks on the WGBH program, Walsh cited a New York Times article he said raised questions about the effectiveness of body cameras. An Oct. 20, 2017 op-ed in the Times cited a study of 2,000 officers in Washington D.C., which found no measurable differences between the officers with cameras and those without.
But activists in Boston say the utility of cameras goes beyond changing the behavior of police officers. Ivan Espinoza Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, cited the case of Terrence Coleman, a 31-year-old man with mental health issues whom police shot dead in 2016 after his mother called for assistance in bringing him to a hospital.
“We have conflicting stories between Ms. Coleman, who observes that her son was nonviolent and would never threaten or attack anyone, and the Police Department, who maintains Coleman was armed with a knife,” he said. “It’s important in these instances that we have body cameras to record the details of the encounter.”
In 2015, Boston Police shot and killed 26-year-old Usaama Rahim in Roslindale after they said he lunged at them with a knife. Rahim had been under surveillance by an anti-terrorism task force. Police released a grainy surveillance camera video captured from a considerable distance which shows police approaching Rahim. The footage doesn’t provide enough detail to reveal whether or not Rahim was armed.
Even in instances where police killings are well-documented with video footage, there’s no guarantee that police officers will be convicted or even indicted for their roles in the killings. The 2014 New York Police Department killing of Eric Garner by chokehold, which appeared to violate department policy, did not result in a grand jury indictment. Nor was the officer who allegedly killed Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, sanctioned by the department, which agreed to a $5.9 million settlement with Garner’s family.
Nevertheless, Boston civil rights activists say they would rather see the department require officers to record footage that creates a record than have the public rely solely on police officers’ versions of events.
“If body cameras are the direction other cities are going in, why are we fighting it in Boston?” said Espinosa Madrigal. “It makes no sense.”