Evans: Body cams ‘positive’; Walsh: ‘Yes’ to fund them

Boston police and city officials testified at a city council hearing Monday that they are convinced there is a benefit to police-worn body cameras. Mayor Martin Walsh committed funding for a full rollout, although the cost to expand the pilot program to include all officers on the force remains a point of uncertainty.

Northeastern University researchers released a preliminary report on the yearlong body camera pilot in January that focused on citizen complaints and mandatory use-of-force reports from officers. The analysis found that, “relative to control officers, treatment officers [with cameras] received fewer citizen complaints and generated fewer use-of-force reports.”

A full report on the pilot that will include community and officer feedback on their interactions, more thorough cost and personnel assessments, and qualitative data is expected to be released later this year.

“While we won’t know the specifics of what a body camera program in Boston should look like until we receive the final report, Mayor Walsh is committed to making a significant investment in this year’s budget for a potential body camera program,” spokeswoman Nicole Caravella said in a statement. “This will guarantee that the police department has the tools they need for implementation once this study is complete in June.”

A public safety and criminal justice hearing Monday featured testimony from the researchers and police officials on their initial impressions.

“For the most part I think it’s all been positive,” Police Commissioner William Evans testified at the hearing. “I haven’t heard one complaint from the officers for wearing them at all.”

Across the year-long pilot, the cameras captured 38,200 videos and 4,600 hours worth of footage. Cameras record every interaction between an officer and a civilian, unless in a domestic violence situation or another circumstance which requires individual privacy. Two officers were cleared of wrongdoing because of body camera video, Evans said, later noting that they had proven to be an invaluable tool in courts.

City councillors said they believed the evidence is substantial enough to support implementing a full body camera program.

“We absolutely should do body cameras,” said Council President Andrea Campbell, though she asked that the city not view these specific cameras as the be-all-end all if other technology is also available to improve policing. Councillor Jim Janey and Lydia Edwards, both elected in November, also said they supported the program.

The study itself is limited by the number of police officers who took part — initially 50 but raised to 100 — and a consistently low incidence of complaints and use of force reports in general, said Anthony Braga with the Northeastern research team.

Use of force and complaints for BPD officers have been on a downward trajectory already, the report notes. The “relatively modest reduction in complaints was significant,” Braga said, in that it was not a random decline unrelated to the cameras, but “these were very small but notable improvements.”
Police officers in five police districts and the Youth Violence Strike Force were randomly assigned cameras and monitored alongside a control group of officers who did not wear cameras. Across all participants, there were 12 fewer citizen complaints filed against officers with body-worn cameras over the year and seven fewer use of force reports, compared with the control group.

One officer who wore a camera during the pilot period was Zachary Crossen, who became the focus of controversy last month when video showing him and a civilian in a tense verbal exchange on a Fields Corner street went viral on social media. John Daley, a deputy superintendent with the police department, told the council hearing that Crossen was not wearing a body camera at the time of the exchange on Charles Street, because the pilot ended last September.

There is some disagreement over the costs and benefits of cameras, Evans said. He referenced a study in Washington D.C. that found little impact in officer behavior when monitored by camera. In a New York Times interview with the Washington D.C. police chief, he said one advantage to the cameras is increased community trust and better documentation.

Another study in Las Vegas found that though complaints decreased, number of arrests rose. Evans worried that the cameras would “take away [offiecrs’] discretion where they might be able to give kids breaks.”

But the main issue is cost, police said. Daley estimated that fully quipping all Boston Police officers would run the city between $5 and $7 million for the first year, and around $25 over five years.

Evans said the department will probably have to hire 12 to 15 people to handle FOIAs, redactions, “input, output, and requests.” At the moment, processing a single request for tape can take 3 to 4 hours to complete, he said.

Representatives from the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Boston Branch of the NAACP testified in support of the program. Rachael Rollins, an attorney speaking on behalf of the NAACP, pressed for immediate implementation and funding in the city budget to reflect it.

With regard to giving officers discretion, Rollins said, “This is a good plug to say that we really need members of law enforcement… that better reflect the rich and diverse communities of Boston. We ask that there are policies in place with respect to when the cameras are turned on and off, and transparency and citizen oversight.”