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Police across Mass. mull use of body cameras

But cost, legality questions raised

Las Vegas police Sergeant Peter Ferranti modeled a body camera.
Las Vegas police Sergeant Peter Ferranti modeled a body camera.(Associated Press/File)

As law enforcement officials across the state consider the president’s call for the use of body cameras by police officers, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has thrown its support behind the measure, the State Police are considering a pilot program, and municipal departments are working to untangle questions of cost, privacy, and logistics.

“There’s a lot of interest in the use of body cameras,” said A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of the police chiefs’ association. “We believe that if there is ever a question of what actually took place, it could be valuable information for the police departments.”

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by police Officer Darren Wilson, President Obama on Monday proposed spending $75 million to help provide up to 50,000 body cameras for police officers across the country.

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But, Sampson and other law enforcement officials say there are serious issues to be ironed out. Among them: Is it legal for police to record citizens without consent? How would cities and towns pay for the cameras? Would they run constantly, or would officers turn them on and off? Where, and for how long, would the footage be stored? Who could review it?

“I think overall it’s a good thing,” said Colonel Timothy P. Alben, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police. “I’m just concerned about all the collateral issues that go with it.”

Alben said he is considering a pilot program with either body cameras or dashboard cameras for about six troopers. The State Police field-tested dash cameras about 10 or 15 years ago, he said, but the volume of video footage — stored in those days on DVDs — was overwhelming, and there were concerns about the legality of recording citizens.

Related: Editorial | Obama must push for reforms at nation’s police departments

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These days, he said, data is easier to store, but still voluminous, and fielding public and media requests for the footage would be a massive undertaking.

The department probably would have to negotiate with the unions to introduce the cameras, Alben said, and cameras are expensive. Still, he said, he believes that eventually, cameras are coming.

“I think that most people today walk around with a smartphone in their pocket or on their belt or in their bag. They’ve all got recording capability wherever they go,” said Alben. “I think the idea of technology expanding into this area — there’s a certain inevitability to that.”

The question of the legality of recording by police remains, however.

Sampson said the police chiefs’ group intends to file legislation in January that would create a specific allowance for the use of body cameras.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, who said he hopes to have his officers outfitted with body cameras by the end of next year, said he thinks the tide will soon turn, and many law enforcement departments will want to use cameras.

“The premise is that in law enforcement, we have to treat people with respect and dignity,” Kyes said. “We have to, it’s essential. I think that this device kind of furthers that notion.”

But not everyone agrees. On Monday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston said he is not ready to embrace the use of cameras by police. The Boston Police Department released a statement saying that while it is not dismissing the idea of body cameras outright, more details are needed.

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“Our main concern is that we have developed over the years a great amount of trust and cooperation with the community,” department spokesman Lieutenant Michael McCarthy said in an interview Tuesday. “By injecting a camera, that level of trust can be broken down.”

In October, the American Civil Liberties Union recommended that Boston police begin using body cameras after a report showed that black residents were disproportionately observed, interrogated, or searched by police between 2007 to 2010.

“When the government can surveil you, but you can’t watch your government, it turns democracy on its head,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The October report was controversial. Police called the data outdated, and said officers focused on high-crime areas and individuals with criminal records, not race.

Rose said that continuously recording cameras would be best, because allowing police to turn cameras on and off allows too much subjectivity in what is captured.

Privacy concerns could be alleviated, she said, by automatically deleting footage unless it shows a detention, arrest, or flagged incident.

“Body cameras on officers can really be a win-win situation for both the police and for the public,” said Rose. “If the police officer and the public both know that they have clear notice that their interaction is being recorded, both the police officer and the civilian are likely to behave with much more civility.”

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Both police and community leaders caution, however, that recording interactions between police and citizens is not a panacea for frayed relations.

“I’m a little bit cautious in terms of saying that it will restore trust, because I think it will take more than body cameras,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, associate pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “I think that requires a command staff that continues to view the community organizers as partners.”

Emmett Folgert, executive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, said the city must focus on job and educational opportunities, and good relationships between officers and citizens.

He supports body cameras for police officers in a limited capacity, he said.

“But it’s not the answer,” said Folgert. “Community policing is the answer.”


John Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.