Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg put it last month, a better understanding of body-worn cameras in law enforcement is necessary before creating any “reasonable, fair and balanced policies.” Given widespread belief that some type of body-worn camera will in time become part of the police officer’s basic tool kit , as well as the national attention they are getting, the grant program seems well-timed and worth the money. Two bills on the issue are already under debate in the Legislature.
As the Gazette reported April 1, many area police chiefs say they support the idea of outfitting officers with body cameras for the accountability and transparency they bring to police work, a sentiment shared by many in the public.
Where law enforcement gets concerned: the costs associated with the technology, such as downloading and storing audio and video footage, along with more complex issues relating to privacy rights and public access to recordings.
There is evidence to suggest that using the technology and maintaining records will be no more cumbersome than managing the video or dash cams police departments have used for years in cruisers. In addition, fears of the public making burdensome requests for sensitive video footage are not supported, as police departments are not swamped today with requests for cruiser video.
It usually takes a high-profile incident, like a police shooting, an unlawful arrest, public spectacle or alleged abuse of power – or a lower profile he-said, she-said case – that prompts that sort of fact-finding mission. And that’s precisely where body-worn cameras bring the most promise. A video chronicling a questionable police action can take a lot of guesswork out of the equation and come as close as we have to a truth-meter of events. But as many controversial cases involving police use of force suggest, including those that get national attention, video doesn’t represent the whole story.
The frame-by-frame analyses, the slow-motion, the forward and backward playing of videos for juries do not account for human emotions, states of mind and what transpired before and after a video starts and ends. Police video is merely one more piece of evidence to consider, but it is often compelling evidence.
Body cameras are already in use in the Franklin County town of Erving, where Police Chief Christopher Blair and his small department have embraced the technology. After six months, Blair told the Gazette, the video footage has been helpful in keeping stories straight and has built public trust.
Notable was a case involving a resident who alleged unprofessional conduct by an Erving officer during a traffic stop. The resident was adamant about the incident, which prompted Blair to investigate and review camera recordings. He determined no such stop was ever made by an Erving officer. It turned out that another law enforcement agency was involved.
The video review, he said, “completely exonerated my department and my officer,” he said.
If there’s one matter that law enforcement and policymakers must get right, it’s protecting people’s right to privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union published policy recommendations last year that support the use of police body cameras so long as they are deployed within a framework of sound policies.
Such policies govern when and what police can record, how images are stored, who has access to them and under what circumstances, to name some.
These are no small matters to address. The police camera pilot programs, as well as the experience of police departments already using them, are critical for Massachusetts to develop rules of engagement that are sound, useful and fair.