Civil rights activists Tuesday offered a mixed review of Boston’s initiative to introduce police body cameras, criticizing a policy that lets officers review footage before providing official statements but praising one measure to protect citizens’ privacy.
The “Policy Scorecard” issued by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Upturn, an organization that studies the intersection of civil rights and technology, evaluated 50 US police departments that have adopted body cameras or intend to do so soon.
The review aimed to “highlight promising approaches that some departments are taking, and to identify opportunities where departments could improve their policies,” according to the report, which found a “nationwide failure to protect the civil rights and privacy of communities.”
Police across the country have moved to implement body cameras amid growing concerns about accountability and transparency following fatal police-involved shootings in several cities.
Boston officials reached a deal in July with the police department’s largest union to launch a six-month test of the cameras with 100 patrol officers. After community meetings and a delayed start, Police Commissioner William B. Evans has said he would like to start the program this month.
The civil rights groups that issued Tuesday’s report used eight measures largely focused on privacy concerns, retention of video footage, officer discretion on recording, and access to footage for those filing complaints on alleged police misconduct.
Scott Simpson, director of media and campaigns for the Leadership Conference, said the programs won’t enhance accountability and transparency if they are “developed without community input or without safeguards to make sure residents are not having their privacy invaded.”
Harlan Yu, a principal at Upturn, lauded Boston police for prohibiting use of facial recognition technology that would let officers take an image and use it to glean information about an individual. He said it is a policy that “departments across the country should take note of.”
Activists have raised concerns that applying facial recognition technology to video collected by police could allow them to gain too much information about the movements of citizens and subject people to unwarranted interrogation.
But Yu and Simpson said the Boston program could stand to make improvements. Out of eight categories, the Boston police pilot program scored well only in terms of limiting technology enhancements such as facial recognition, but ranked poorly in five other areas that included protecting footage from tampering and availability of the body camera policy.
Boston police spokeswoman Myeshia Henderson said department officials were reviewing the report, but declined further comment.
The activists said they were especially concerned about officers being allowed to view video footage before preparing official reports and submitting statements, even in cases of officer-involved shootings. In such cases, investigators would review the video first, then officers and supervisors who were involved in a shooting or who witnessed the incident would be allowed to view the video before submitting their statements.
The activists say officers could tailor their statements to reflect only what can be seen in the video, and leave out anything the camera did not capture. There is also concern the policy gives police an advantage over other witnesses.
“We think this is particularly problematic,” Yu said. “Officers should be on an even playing field with other witnesses.”
According to the report, none of the police departments had a blanket prohibition on officers viewing footage before filing a written incident report. But six departments applied some limits in the event of officer-involved shootings.
Yu said the Boston Police Department’s pilot policy failed to explicitly outline how those filing complaints against police could access footage.
“The Boston policy points to the public records’ law, but there’s no specific process for individuals who are the subject of the recording,” Yu said.
In Washington, D.C., the police department allows people filing complaints to fill out a form requesting to review the footage. Cincinnati, Chicago, and Parker, Colo., were lauded for providing similar access.
According to the report, as of this month, 42 of 68 big city police departments have body camera programs, but about half of those agencies have not made the policies public. The Boston department scored low for not having the policy on its website. On Tuesday, Boston made the policy available on its website.
Thirteen departments met the criteria in more than two categories, while Fresno, Calif., and Ferguson, Mo., the city at the epicenter of the national debate over police shootings of African-American men, failed entirely.
Local advocates who had called for Boston police to implement a body camera program last month lauded the proposed pilot, but raised similar concerns.
Segun Idowu, co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, a community group advocating for the devices, said Tuesday he hopes the department will make some adjustments before the pilot program starts, particularly related to officers being able to view footage before making statements.
And he said the department should establish consequences for officers who fail to adhere to policies governing use of body cameras.
“There’s no point in having a great policy if people can’t be held accountable,” Idowu said.
Police officials are expected to appear before the City Council for a hearing on the pilot program at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Idowu said he is still seeking answers from the department about details of the pilot program.
“Where are the cameras going to be? . . . How many districts, shifts?” he said. “And what metrics will they use to judge the success of the program?”