Eleven Boston police officers assigned to a school unit started wearing body cameras this week in a move authorities hoped would improve trust between the community and police and reflect transparency in the department’s dealings.
In a letter to the Boston public schools community, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said officers assigned to the unit, who are assigned to work in schools as needed, started wearing the cameras on Tuesday.
District officials hope the cameras will strengthen “the level of trust that exists” between police and the community, Cassellius said in the letter sent Wednesday.
Officers who have been assigned body cameras have been ordered to wear them while on duty, according to authorities. Cassellius, who was selected as superintendent last year, said Boston police had requested that the district share the news with its school communities.
“We are dedicated to ensuring our schools remain safe, open, and inviting learning spaces for all of our students and their families,” she said in the letter.
However, at least one civil rights advocacy group had concerns about the body-camera program in Boston’s schools.
Rahsaan Hall, the racial justice program director at ACLU of Massachusetts, said Wednesday that with the right policies, such body cameras can “advance civil rights and help to build community trust,” but added that any such program “must center civil rights and privacy.” He did not want to see the cameras become “yet another tool of warrantless government surveillance.”
“Without policies to prohibit officers from reviewing footage before drafting reports and without explicit bans on the use of face surveillance technology on body camera images, body cameras could end up doing more harm than good,” said Hall.
Procedures governing the use of the cameras “must also be precise and deliberate to ensure videos of young people aren’t shared with federal immigration enforcement,” he said.
The Police Department’s policy states that cameras do not include technological enhancements such as facial recognition or night-vision.
According to Wednesday’s letter, officers will have the ability to turn their camera on during “any citizen contact or official duty circumstances.”
Police will also be able to turn the cameras off “in order to protect sensitive information, the privacy of individuals, or due to confidentiality concerns,” the letter stated said.
The cameras are expected to be used during pat frisks and searches of people under arrest, when an officer believes a “crowd control incident may result in unlawful activity,” and “all dispatched calls for service involving contact with civilians,” according to officials.
Other expected uses include initial responses by patrol officers, on-site detentions, arrests, on-scene suspect interviews, transport of prisoners, stops supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion that adheres to a department policy, vehicle stops, vehicle pursuits, or “any contact that becomes adversarial,” including a use-of-force incident.
Last year, Boston police announced that about 200 officers would don body cameras as the department started to roll out a new program. At that time, officers assigned to District C-6 in South Boston, C-11 in Dorchester, and the youth violence strike force were given cameras, the department said.
In the months since, all Boston police districts have been trained to use body cameras, and the department has been training all special units, including the school police unit, Boston police Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman, said Wednesday.
The 11 officers who are assigned to the department’s school police unit are not members of the school district’s police, who work in the schools on a daily basis. Such school police are employees of Boston Public Schools. Members of the Boston Public Schools police will not be wearing body cameras, according to the district, and footage from the cameras will not be maintained by the schools and “therefore will not become part of a student’s education record.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday the city “continues to be a model city for strong police-community relations and we are always working to strengthen the trust and relationships between members of the community and law enforcement.”
“Body cameras are an important part of our strategy to support the progress we have made in community policing,” he said in a statement.
Following a pilot program that concluded in 2018, Walsh ultimately agreed the cameras brought “small but meaningful benefits” to police interactions.
Walsh and police leaders initially hedged on adding the cameras, despite significant community support for them.
The program’s implementation was further delayed by negotiations with the union representing patrol officers, which opposed the cameras.
Attempts to reach members of the Citywide Parent Council, which describes itself as the umbrella organization of the 125 school parent councils in the district, were unsuccessful on Wednesday.