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Boston police camera footage proving useful, but only on a limited basis

Boston police rolled out a body camera program earier this year.
Boston police rolled out a body camera program earier this year.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

In September, prosecutors used footage from a Boston police officer’s body camera to convince a judge that a defendant was dangerous and should be held in custody.

That same month, the recording of an arrest in West Roxbury refuted claims of officer mistreatment and showed signs that the suspect had mental health issues, leading prosecutors to recommend treatment.

Since June, when officers across Boston began wearing body cameras after years of resistance, the chest-mounted devices have provided valuable information for internal investigations and prosecutions, law enforcement officials said. But in a number of high-profile cases, the absence of footage has been glaring, spurring frustration that the department has not moved quickly enough to make body cameras more widespread.

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“It’s important that we have all perspectives of why things happened the way they did,” said Segun Idowu, co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, a community group that has lobbied for body cameras as a way to improve police accountability and public trust.

Officers have shot and killed two men since cameras were adopted — Jaymil Ellerbe, 19, in Dorchester in June, and Isaac Rasheed Smith, 37, in Jamaica Plain in September. Police said both men were armed, but neither shooting was captured on camera.

In late August, police arrested three dozen people at a controversial Straight Pride rally after protesters clashed with officers, injuring four. But because the officers were working overtime shifts, they were not required to wear body cameras under department rules negotiated before the program began, and the encounters went unrecorded.

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said she was encouraged by the footage she has seen so far, but hoped the cameras would be “more widely deployed, including when officers are on overtime.”

“The feedback I’ve heard from my prosecutors has been positive,” Rollins said. “They can help us build stronger cases, or make clear that alternative resolutions should be pursued.”

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh said requiring officers to wear cameras during overtime shifts would require negotiations with the union. The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Walsh said that it was too early to fully assess the camera program, but that its success will hinge on its ability to foster trust between officers and residents.

“It’s not the body cameras that are going to make it successful,” Walsh said. “What’s going to be successful is that we continue community policing. The body camera is a device, it’s a piece of technology. It doesn’t build relationships.”

Nearly 900 uniformed patrol officers across the city have been trained and outfitted with cameras — roughly half of the force, though the number of cameras deployed at any given time varies. Some specialized units are using them — including the Youth Violence Strike Force — while others, including the canine, bomb, and harbor units, are waiting to be trained and outfitted.

Police Commissioner William G. Gross asked for patience. So far, the process has gone relatively smoothly, he said.

“What we’re doing now is getting acclimated to wearing the cameras, as well as getting the public . . . used to seeing the body-worn cameras,” Gross said.

He noted that detectives must review all footage in their criminal investigations, which can be time consuming.

“Just like if we took notes at the scene — investigators have to review all those notes, and they have to be available for discovery” when the case goes to court, Gross said.

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Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, 574 Boston police officers uploaded 710 hours of footage, a police spokesman said.

The cameras are not constantly recording — officers must activate them when they’re interacting with members of the public.

Officers are expected to use cameras for all vehicle stops, investigative stops, and dispatched calls for service that involve contact with civilians, as well as “any contact that becomes adversarial,” including the use of force.

During a one-year pilot program, officers who used the cameras received fewer civilian complaints and use-of-force reports, according to a report police commissioned from Northeastern University researchers last year. The cameras appeared to “generate small but meaningful benefits” to the civility of police encounters with the public, researchers said.

Yet a major study of the impact of body cameras across the country concluded that their use is unlikely to significantly improve police performance and accountability.

“Expectations and concerns surrounding body-worn cameras among police leaders and citizens have not yet been realized by and large in the ways anticipated by each,” Cynthia Lum, a professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University who coauthored the study, said in a statement.

In Boston, proponents remain hopeful the cameras will lead to more positive interactions with the public. For example, Idowu mentioned a black friend of his who was relieved to see that a police officer who pulled him over was wearing a camera.

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But Idowu said he would like to see police announce what discipline officers face if they do not use the cameras properly, and make it easier for people who are recorded, or their next of kin, to access the footage.

In Erving, a Franklin County town with fewer than 2,000 residents, police officers have used body cameras for several years. In one altercation, footage showed an officer shooting and injuring a man who had attacked a State Police trooper with a knife. The officer’s body camera was synched with his cruiser’s dashboard camera, capturing the incident from multiple angles.

“His cruiser captured stuff that we didn’t even know happened, like the guy running behind to attack the trooper,” said the town’s police chief, Christopher Blair.

At the Essex County sheriff’s office, deputies wear cameras in the jail’s intake area and when they are in public. In one case, footage helped exonerate a deputy who had been accused of excessive force.

“You have the entire picture,” said Sheriff Kevin Coppinger.


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.