In a welcome change of tone from earlier in the week, Mayor Walsh Thursday endorsed the idea of a pilot program for body cameras on police in an interview with the Globe editorial board. The technology is a major part of President Obama’s proposal to rebuild trust in law enforcement after the killings of several unarmed black men. The White House is pledging to cover half the costs of up to 50,000 body cameras to local and state police departments.
On Monday, after attending Obama’s meeting of mayors, civil rights leaders, clergy, and police officials, Walsh expressed skepticism about cameras, saying they “aren’t going to help with the fundamental problems between community and police.” His skepticism was echoed on Tuesday by Boston Police spokesman Michael McCarthy, who implied that cameras would hurt the department’s long-running and commendable efforts to establish good community relations. “We have developed a great amount of trust and cooperation with the community,” McCarthy told the Globe. “By injecting a camera, that level of trust can be broken down.”
To the contrary, there is evidence that body cameras build trust. In a report this year by the Justice Department and the Police Executive Research Forum, departments in California, Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida report a significant drop in citizen complaints, better behavior by both police and citizens and better evidence collecting. Daytona Beach’s police chief said cameras have been particularly helpful in documenting domestic violence.
There are, of course, new sets of guidelines that must be developed to protect the privacy of citizens and address concerns about media access to footage in controversial cases. Cameras do not guarantee justice, as the case of Eric Garner demonstrates; a bystander’s cellphone captured the video of a New York City police officer placing Garner in a chokehold and taking him to the ground.
But in general, the report concluded that when implemented correctly, body-worn cameras can increase police professionalism, accountability, and transparency. In Boston’s case, that could make an already well-respected department even better. On Thursday, Walsh acknowledged, “Maybe I didn’t approach it quite the way I should have. Everything is on the table on how policing is done. The president has a tough job and I want to be supportive.” That is the correct approach, which Walsh can implement by putting Boston in line for the president’s funds for a pilot body camera program.