After pockets of protesters and police officers clashed during fiery demonstrations across Worcester in early June, city leaders struggled to parse blame for the physical confrontations. Police had their version of events. Protesters had their own.
What they didn’t have was unassailable evidence, such as police body camera footage, to suss out the truth.
“We would have loved to have cameras in that situation,” City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. told the Globe. “There’s always a back and forth, and oftentimes you’d love to have a clear-cut understanding of what went down, and the videos provide that opportunity.”
In the wake of those confrontations, the second largest city in New England plans to soon equip its police officers with body cameras, joining a growing list of Massachusetts communities moving to adopt the technology. After years of overlooking the tool, several law enforcement agencies are quickly turning to the cameras for an extra level of transparency, for both police officers and citizens. Their actions are spurred — at least in part, if not fully — by a national reckoning over systemic police abuses and growing demands for greater accountability among law enforcement.
“Everybody is looking for the truth,” said Chris Burbank, vice president for law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity. “The truth does not lie in that video.”
So far, the state’s biggest departments, including Worcester, Boston, and Springfield, as well as State Police, use cameras or are in the process of incorporating them. Methuen uses such equipment, and Concord announced two weeks ago that it will, too. Just a handful of other towns — among the state’s smallest — are also on board with body cameras.
Burbank, who implemented a camera program a decade ago while head of the Salt Lake City Police Department, said the technology has evolved to the point it should become a basic requirement in every department. Footage can be used not only as way to settle discrepancies over any incident, he said, but also as a way to help shape and inform proper police conduct.
“I’ve always had the view that any action an officer takes while on duty should be captured, should be scrutinized, and should be public,” he said.
Typically, these cameras — about the size of a deck of cards — are pinned to an officer’s uniform and can record encounters ranging from traffic stops to an officer’s arrival at a crime scene. Each department has its own guidelines for camera use, such as when an officer should turn it on, or off, or how long the department should store the footage.
As part of a police reform bill under debate on Beacon Hill, the state Legislature aims to create a task force that would study ways to create uniform body camera guidelines for all departments within the state. Those guidelines would dictate, for instance, how long the video is stored, as well as protocols for protecting the privacy of crime victims and children.
State Representative Denise Provost, a Democrat from Somerville who has led the push for a statewide policy, said that all departments should be following the same guidelines.
For years, Provost had unsuccessfully pushed for a law requiring departments to adopt body camera technology. She backtracked after communities raised concerns about the costs. Regardless, Provost said, the calls for body cameras are only intensifying, and departments should explore state and federal grant opportunities.
“It seems the technology will inevitably be adopted,” she said.
Officials in Worcester, after running a pilot program last year, estimate it will cost from $4 million to $11 million (depending on the type of technology) to immediately outfit the nearly 500-member department. The $11 million price tag would be a fifth of the police department’s entire $50 million yearly budget.
Still, local officials said the price is worth it.
“We’re sold on the concept of body cameras,” said Augustus, the city manager. “The City Council wants the body cameras, the police want the body cameras. We just need to figure out how to pay for them.”
Just last month, Springfield began rolling out a body camera program, with a goal to outfit the force of nearly 500 officers by the end of the summer.
In 2018, Governor Charlie Baker called for the State Police to establish body camera and vehicle dash camera programs. The announcement followed several high-profile allegations of trooper misconduct. The state’s largest law enforcement agency initially ran a pilot initiative and plans to roll out an agency-wide program later this year, a department spokesman said.
Segun Idowu, one of the founders of the Boston Police Body Camera Action Team, welcomed the newfound willingness of departments to embrace the technology. But he noted that community groups had lobbied for the equipment for more than five years. Several agencies have pushed back on those suggestions and only now, amid calls for even deeper reforms, are accepting of cameras.
“It’s interesting to see the shift in that way,” said Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. “But this was never a radical idea.”
The adoption of body cameras is rarely easy. Politically powerful police unions have demanded that officers’ use of the cameras be built into contract negotiations. In 2016, Boston’s patrolmen’s union fought the new equipment, filing a lawsuit to block what the union described as a “miscarriage of justice.” The issue was later resolved behind closed doors at the bargaining table with a major caveat: Officers do not have to wear cameras while working overtime.
Boston is roughly halfway through the process of outfitting its roughly 2,000-member department with cameras. Already, the city is examining its guidelines for the program: A Boston Police Reform Task Force, established in June by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, has focused on the body camera program, among other tasks.
Boston’s pilot program in 2016 found that the number of complaints against officers who used the cameras, as well as the officers’ reported use of excessive force, dropped slightly — what the mayor called “small but meaningful benefits” for residents and police officers.
Other benefits were clear in footage recently obtained through a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which showed police officers using questionable tactics during a high-profile raid in response to community concerns over public drug use.
Ipswich Police Chief Paul Nikas brought cameras to the department in 2017, outfitting all 25 officers. Nikas secured a state grant for the purchase and worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to develop a policy on how to operate the program. Few other police leaders in Massachusetts had experience with the technology at the time.
He’s endorsed them ever since, noting they have been useful in settling citizen disputes with police officers, as well as confirming an officer’s account at a crime scene. At this point, he said, it’s not new or disputed technology.
“It had way more pluses than minuses,” he said. “I see this as a priority, especially with everything going on in society right now.”