Walsh: ‘not convinced yet’ on police body cameras; activists: ‘issue decided,’ so let’s just get on with it

Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross with his body camera. BPD photo

Early report sees small gains

The issue of police body cameras moved back into the spotlight late last week when Mayor Martin Walsh cast doubts on an implementation in the near future of a citywide rollout of the devices, citing the technology’s value and its impact on police and community relations as his reasons for caution.

A preliminary report on a year-long pilot that concluded last September found that the body cameras “may generate small benefits to the civility of police-citizen civilian encounters,” and that officers with cameras “received fewer citizen complaints and generated fewer use of force reports.”

In an interview with Boston Public Radio on Friday, Walsh said that “one hundred cameras is 100 cameras, 2,100 cameras is a completely different situation. Before every officer in Boston would put on a body camera, there’s a lot of work that has to happen before that happens ... so I’m not convinced yet.”

On Monday, the Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT) released a statement charging that the mayor had “moved the goalposts” on the policy issue and telling him that New Year’s Day “was an inauguration, not a coronation.”

BPCAT noted broad support for the cameras, including a WGBH poll in fall 2017 that found 78 percent of likely Boston voters were in favor of body cameras for police officers. “The issue has already been decided,” the group wrote. “It is to the mayor, now, to decide how to implement such a program, not if.”

The statement called on Walsh to immediately release the preliminary results of the pilot program; convene meeting with civil rights stakeholders and researchers to shape a permanent program for police officers using the study results; publicly commit to implementing a permanent body-worn camera program; and include funds in the 2019 budget for a permanent body camera program.

The preliminary report, mostly focused on quantitative data, was posted Wednesday afternoon on the Boston Police website. Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Injustice, and Anthony Braga, a criminal justice professor, are expected to release a more comprehensive report on the study in March or April.

After the early report’s release, Walsh said in statement, "Boston has become a model for strong community policing and our goal is to continue building trust and positive relationships between residents and law enforcement. Ultimately, we want to be sure that any investment in public safety supports this work and I look forward to learning more."

An initial six-month, 100-camera pilot during which randomly assigned officers wore one of two body camera models and documented their interactions in the course of duty was later extended to a full year before ending last September.

The impact of body worn cameras on citizen complaints was “small but statistically-significant,” according to the preliminary report, about one complaint fewer per month for 140 participant officers compared to 141 control officers. Analysis found “a small reduction in officer use of force reports that was not statistically significant, suggesting no meaningful difference between the treatment and control groups,” the report found.

Boston’s use of force reports, already rare for Boston police officers, and complaints has declined year-over-year — down by 43 percent and 45 percent between 2013 and 2016 respectively. The research team plans to submit requests for 2017 citywide data for comparison.

In the conversation with Boston Public Radio, Walsh referenced a body camera study covered in the New York Times in October 2017 which had reported that 2,000 body cameras used in Washington over 18 months had almost no impact on officer behavior. “They’re not bringing resolutions as far as confidence [in] the police,” Walsh said with respect to the study.

However, Chief Peter Newsham of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington told the Times that measurable benefits came with the cameras, including more accurate investigations, better training, an independent record of violent incidents, and a bolstering of the trust in the community. “You have to be legitimate and trusted,” he told the newspaper. “You can’t underestimate the value these cameras bring to that.”

In Boston, Police Commissioner William Evans said throughout the Boston pilot that it seemed to have been received well overall.

This conversation rears its head again as Boston Police community service officers fan out across neighborhood groups in Dorchester’s C-11 district asking for voluntary participation in their Cam-Share program. Participants would give police access to their private security cameras as an additional resource when investigating crimes.

On Tuesday night, City Council President Andrea Campbell, who will stay on as vice chair for the council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice committee and has been championing the body camera initiative, said responses to the body-worn cameras have been encouraging so far.

In a statement to the Reporter on Tuesday, Campbell said, “I anticipate the preliminary results of the body camera pilot program will demonstrate an overall positive response and a decrease in police misconduct reports. The question is, where do we go from here? Permanent implementation doesn’t necessarily mean we equip every single officer overnight.”

A major consideration for any implementation is the estimated $8 million price tag for full expansion, with much of the expense having to do with storing the deluge of videos collected from officers around the city. With only the 100 pilot cameras in operation, about 4,400 hours of footage were collected by the end of the pilot in September.

Walsh said in the interview with Boston Public Radio that body cameras would be “a topic of conversation, about laying down the foundation” in upcoming budget deliberations.

For her part, Campbell said, “Given the price tag for this, we might want to consider implementation in phases. I do think body cameras should be one tool, among many, that we use as part of a larger public safety strategy to improve interactions between officers and civilians and vice versa, to help address issues of violence, and to increase accountability for the police department.”