METHUEN – Police Officer Nicholas Conway turned on his lights to pull over a white Honda Civic that had just blown through a red light. Before getting out of his cruiser, he turned on the small camera attached to a pocket on the right side of his shirt.
As he approached the car, Conway told the driver that he was being recorded. After that, the routine traffic stop unfolded in much the same way as countless others — with the driver asking why he’d been stopped and ending with Conway sending the driver off with a warning.
The nearly six-minute recording of the exchange clearly captured the driver’s face, his wife, who was also in the car, the parking lot where he was stopped, and the CVS nearby. The footage was immediately accessible on Conway’s iPod and later would be uploaded onto a secure server.
In May, the Methuen Police Department, with little fuss, became the first major law enforcement agency in Massachusetts to start using body cameras, putting them on 47 patrol officers after a six-month trial run last year.
Three months in, many officers say the cameras serve as an extra pair of eyes, documenting their interactions with residents and incidents involving force. Residents say the cameras provide an unbiased record of their experiences with officers.
“[With] the things you see on TV, it makes me feel safe in case something is wrong or there’s any question on my behalf or the officer’s behalf,” said Jose Martinez, 35, who was stopped by Conway after running a red light. “There’s always a recording of the conversation.”
Unlike the situation in the Boston Police Department, where a pilot program to test body cameras was stalled for months over union negotiations and a lack of volunteers, outfitting officers in Methuen with cameras was a relatively smooth process, said Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon. The Methuen department is smaller, but Solomon said that bringing the unions into the conversation early was key to the successful launch. And while the city of just under 50,000 people doesn’t face the same type of crime as Boston, it’s not immune to potential trouble.
Three days before officers began wearing cameras, four Methuen police detectives shot an armed robbery suspect after he pulled a gun on investigators.
“You can be the best police department in the world and, right or wrong, you’re one incident away from a crisis,” Solomon said.
Not all of Methuen’s police officers were on board when Solomon presented the idea last year.
He began researching body cameras in 2014, after an officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Expecting some pushback from the police union, Solomon said, he allowed union leaders to craft the policy for the camera use. Officials and union leaders then worked together to make adjustments before including the district attorney’s office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts in the conversation.
“We had some of the what we call the ‘dinosaur officers’ who had been around for a while and were afraid of technology,” said former union president Sergeant Thomas McMenamon Jr. “Their other concern was, ‘We don’t want it out there cause we’re concerned the administration will be constantly watching our videos.’ ”
But Solomon assured the union and his officers that was not the purpose of the cameras.
The Methuen Police Department is a 92-member force in a predominantly white suburb in Essex County.
About 18 percent of residents are Hispanic, 4 percent are Asian, and 3 percent are black.
Martinez, a Methuen resident, said he has never had a negative experience with police and, until Saturday, had never been pulled over.
Conway, who has been on the force for a little over a year working the night shift, said the camera has become part of his uniform.
“If you’re doing your job and you’re doing it the right way, you shouldn’t care about recording,” Conway said, adding that its presence can help deescalate tense situations. “It’ll save you from false complaints and people making false accusations.”
It’s too soon to determine the impact body cameras have had on complaints against Methuen officers, but Solomon said that in the three months since they began wearing cameras, he is aware of only two complaints. In the past, the department usually received an average of two complaints a month.
Officer Mark Parolisi, 26, who joined the department roughly a year ago, said he was “a little apprehensive” at first, but he has grown to like the cameras.
“I don’t get as much attitude [from people],” Parolisi said.
The Methuen City Council allocated $270,000 toward a five-year contract for the cameras, which also includes Tasers for the department. Solomon said he’d also like to purchase technology that would automatically start the cameras when an officer turns on his police siren.
Another potential benefit of the cameras could be in the courtroom, Solomon said. Once a recording is uploaded, it is available to the district attorney’s office and the videos could help address a backlog of court cases by reducing the number of officers needed to testify, he said.
Meanwhile in Boston, the police department began training officers Wednesday to use body cameras.
One hundred officers are expected to hit the streets in September with the cameras for a six-month trial after Police Commissioner William B. Evans assigned officers to the program when no one volunteered.
Solomon said using cameras will only make a department “look better.”
“We all took this job because we believe we want to give back or we wouldn’t be cops today,” said Solomon. “If the public says they want something, then policing is carrying out the mission of the public.”