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Should Walpole police wear body cameras?

December 9, 2014

Update 12/21/14: Walpole Police Chief Richard Stillman, in a Boston Globe article, says he is in favor of equipping police officers with body cameras.

Recent protests nationwide over grand juries in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City that chose not to indict police officers involved in killings has sparked a national effort to equip police officers with body cameras.

President Barack Obama is asking Congress to spend $75 million for 50,000 body cameras for local police departments across the country.

Many departments already have body cameras, or are quickly working to equip their officers with them, like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Body cameras are essentially cameras that an officer would wear while they are on duty to record their interactions with the public. The cameras are small enough that they can attach to a collar, a hat, or on the side of sunglasses.

The advantage to them, of course, is that they can serve as a definitive record of what happens during interactions between cops and the public. Many cities where officers wear body cameras, like Rialto, Calif., have found that the cameras protect the department when members of the public file complaints against officers for excessive force. Rialto officers also have digital audio recorders, and cameras on their tasers, which are automatically activated when the weapon is armed.

Some studies have found that police officers with cameras are less likely to use excessive force than officers who do not wear the cameras, and that complaints against officers go down dramatically. Other studies have had starkly different results, concluding that body cameras do not necessarily have an impact on reducing excessive force or police shootings, however cameras are rendered ineffective when officers turn the cameras off prior to a serious confrontation with a citizen.

Some police departments and privacy advocates have reservations about requiring body cameras for officers. One concern that has been cited by some officials, including Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, is that tipsters and informants may be unwilling to approach police officers with sensitive information, for fear of being recorded. Under state public records law, police departments in Massachusetts have wide discretion to prevent the release of documents or video footage that might hinder an investigation or hurt potential informants.

Some officials believe that the cameras do not actually solve underlying trust issues between police officers and the communities they serve, and are simply a band-aid approach to a larger problem.

Some privacy advocates have said that the body cameras can be used by the government to watch over them, so police departments should make sure to have specific policies for their use, including provisions for the length of time the videos will be archived. Other privacy advocates have noted that it is still illegal for anybody, including police officers, to record someone without their consent. But the Department of Justice has reported that confrontations between officers and the public can sometimes be defused if an officer announces that the interaction is being recorded.

The Mass. Chiefs of Police Association has said they support the use of body cameras, and the Mass. State Police is considering a pilot program for their use. Some departments in Mass. already use the cameras, but its use has generally been limited to only a few officers per department.

Boston Magazine reported earlier this year that some Mass. police departments are also interested in using Google Glass technology, wearable eyeglasses, to not only record interactions with the public but also provide other useful information with verbal command software to officers on the job.

Walpole police officers already have tasers, and the department has developed policies related to their use. All Walpole police cars have dashboard cameras as well. Walpole police cars are not equipped with dashboard cameras.

Depending on whether Congress acts on President Obama’s funding request, Walpole may soon be in a position to accept federal money for body cameras, which can cost up to $1,000 each (some cameras are significantly cheaper, in the range of $200-$500). Even if Walpole doesn’t get federal funding, should Walpole officers be outfitted with body cameras?

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