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Not tomorrow, but today on implementing body cameras

On Monday, March 12, the Boston City Council hosted its sixth hearing on police-worn body cameras. The hearing marked almost four years that the city has engaged in a prolonged conversation on this topic.

But recent incidents in our community — namely, the mid-day harassment of a young Black man by a Boston Police officer caught on tape, along with the shooting of a person of color by a Massachusetts state trooper who has a history of making racist comments – demonstrate that the time for talk is over.

Polls by WGBH and the Bay State Banner show us that the overwhelming majority of Boston residents are ready for action. Stop any Bostonian on the street, and they are more likely than not to be under the impression that the debate over body cameras ended in 2016, and that Boston police officers continue to don the devices.

Despite early resistance from their own union, even individual officers will tell you that they are ready for body cameras and want the rest of the city to see the important work they do to protect us all.

And now, Mayor Walsh — despite early reservations — committed to allocating an unspecified amount of money in his soon-to-be-released budget to support the implementation of a citywide program.

So what’s next?

Two Northeastern University professors, Dr. Anthony Braga and Dr. Jack McDevitt, are working on a final report due in June that will give further details on the results of the yearlong pilot program. All members of the public who interacted with an officer with a body camera are encouraged to participate in the study.

Our groups — the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Boston Police Camera Action Team, Digital Fourth, the Lawyers Committee for Civil and Economic Rights, and the NAACP Boston — are calling on the City Council to not delay conversation around policy and a program rollout until after June, but rather to hold those discussions now. The final report should instead inform ongoing community discussions.

We developed model policies with significant public input in 2014 and 2015 that we believe should be adopted fully to ensure the protection of the rights of both police officers and civilians. These policies included the right of the citizen to access footage of themselves at no cost; the forbidding of supervisors to unfairly target officers using camera footage; the ability for civilians to request body cameras to be turned off on certain occasions, and many other important recommendations that protect the privacy of all and guarantee the accountability and transparency these tools are meant to create.

Public feedback is also needed for proper implementation of a citywide program. Testimony at Monday’s hearing noted that a full program could cost between $5-to-$7 million annually. However, this figure could be reduced if we adopt innovative ways to phase-in the program over multiple years. To offset costs, for example, we propose that the city gradually equip its officers with body cameras, beginning first with the Youth Violence Strike Force. We also propose purchasing one camera for every two officers, enough to fill a regular shift.

Body cameras are an important step towards greater oversight and accountability. They are not a cure-all. But, when combined with good policies that protect privacy and ensure fairness, they can build community trust, improve safety, and promote mutual respect on both sides of the badge. Budgets reflect priorities and we are hopeful that Mayor Walsh will allocate an adequate amount of funding for a serious program, and that the City Council will immediately host citywide discussions on the makeup of this program.

— Jointly written by
Segun Idowu, Rahsaan Hall, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal,
Alex Marthews, and
Tanisha Sullivan

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