When I read earlier this year that the Worcester Police Department was considering adopting body cameras, it was the first case I had heard of a Massachusetts police department looking into the issue. It turns out that dozens of other police departments in the state are doing so as well. According to WBZ, "as many as 50 Massachusetts police departments are now considering outfitting their officers with cameras":
One of the police departments that is not currently looking into body cameras is the Massachusetts State Police. Colonel Timothy Alben, the head of the State Police, told WBZ that they would likely not be adopted due to the cost.
I recently asked the State Police why they don't have dashboard cameras in their vehicles and whether they were planning to implement body cameras in the future for an unrelated story. David Procopio, the director of Media Relations, gave me a similar answer to Alben (paragraph breaks added for readability):
We do not have any plans to do so at this time [i.e., implement body cameras]. In the past cameras have proven to be cost-prohibitive. As with many public agencies, allocation of limited resources demands that we prioritize how we spend our funding, and we have determined that the best service to the greatest number of public citizens is to allocate funds to protect people from violent crime; from reckless and dangerous motorists; from drug trafficking, gun trafficking and human trafficking; from child abduction and abuse; from organized crime; from elder abuse; and from terrorist threats and cyber threats, and to hold accountable the criminals who commit such crimes.
I think it is inevitable that many departments will consider the use of body cameras in the next decade or so, and I am sure that the pros and cons of body cameras will the subject of discussion within the State Police in coming years. Does that mean I think they eventually will be adopted by MSP? It does not; I do not know the answer to that. What it means is that I think every large police department is going to have to discuss the options available in light of current technology and determine whether those options fit their mission and their funding. There will still be a cost factor involved, and the department’s priorities for resource allocation are not going to waver from those I described above – investigation and prevention of violent crime, crimes against children, motor vehicle crimes, drug, gun and human trafficking, gang activity and organized crime, etc.
In a larger sense, the Massachusetts State Police have a strong record of investigating our own members when they have been accused of misconduct or criminal behavior. That willingness to do so is what is most important, more important, even, than technology.
Since the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, body cameras have become a big topic of discussion and police departments across the country have been discussing whether or not to implement them. It will be interesting to see how many of these departments go through with it and how it plays out.
Many people are placing a lot of hope in body cameras making police more accountable to the public. The idea is that cameras will eliminate "he said, she said" disputes in which a police officer's word is typically taken more seriously than a person accusing the officer of misconduct. The cameras should not only make it easier to prove (or disprove) misconduct, they should also deter it from happening in the first place.
Some of the hype surrounding body cameras comes from a study of the Rialto, California police which found that complaints dropped 88% and use of force incidents dropped 60% in the year after they adopted body cameras. Those results certainly look promising, but should be interpreted with caution because the study only looked at two years of data from a single police department.
I agree with Carlos Miller, who runs the site Photography is Not a Crime, that putting cameras on cops is not a "magic bullet." Miller noted earlier this year that while the Rialto police may have had success when they implemented body cameras, the Albuquerque, New Mexico police had a different result:
[L]ogic tells us humans would be on their best behavior knowing they are being video recorded.
However, that logic falls apart if we take a look at the Albuquerque Police Department which introduced body-mounted cameras in 2010 – one of the first departments in the country to do so – only to continue to see an unsettling number of violent incidents against citizens.
They killed so many citizens since introducing the cameras that the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation in late 2012, citing an unusually high number of incidents resulting in “excessive force, including use of unreasonable deadly force, in their encounters with civilians.”
But even the USDOJ investigation, launched around the time the Rialto Police Department issued cameras to its officers, did nothing to curb the aggressiveness because cops continued killing citizens, not in the least bit swayed by the pending investigation.
The DOJ investigation, which has since been completed, found that the majority of fatal shootings by the Albuquerque police in recent years "were unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment."
There are other legitimate concerns about body cameras. For instance, they could become just another tool for government surveillance, especially when they can be linked with facial recognition and other surveillance technologies. The ACLU endorses body cameras, but says that regulations must be in place to protect the public's privacy and to ensure police do not tamper with the cameras or shut them off at inappropriate times.
Another issue is whether or not the public will be able to access body camera footage. The Massachusetts public records law has an exemption in it for material related to law enforcement investigations if releasing the records would prejudice the results of the investigation. Many police departments have interpreted this to mean they can withhold any and all documents related to an ongoing investigation. When I made a public records request to the Massachusetts State Police last year for records related to a police shooting, I was told that the State Police would not release any information at all because it was an ongoing investigation. I appealed the decision to the Supervisor of Records, who sided with the State Police.
Investigations can drag on for months or even years, leaving the public in the dark. Many police departments and district attorney's offices will not even release the names of police who shoot people until they complete their investigations.
Since at least 2002, Massachusetts police officers have never been prosecuted for fatal shootings, regardless of the circumstances. The shootings are investigated by fellow police officers and the decision as to whether the shootings are justified is made by the local district attorney, who works with the police on a daily basis -- all of which strikes me as a clear conflict of interest. I think that police shooting investigations should be more transparent to the public and one way to do that would be releasing body camera footage shortly after a shooting takes place.