(TNS) — Very few Central Massachusetts police departments are using body cameras, with cost being the number one hurdle cited by local chiefs, many of whom are interested in bringing them online.
Departments in Leicester, West Brookfield and Petersham are the only towns the Telegram & Gazette could identify as using body cameras in an email survey of local chiefs last week.
"I would love to have them," William E. Lyver, chief of police in Northboro, wrote, echoing comments made by nearly a dozen other chiefs about cost being the largest hurdle.
An increasingly used tool by police officers nationwide — a 2016 federal study pegged local department usage at 45 percent — body cameras have been slow to catch on in Massachusetts.
Many of the state's largest agencies, including the Massachusetts State Police and the Worcester Police Department, have not yet rolled out permanent programs, while Boston just started rolling out its program in June.
The state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said last week that it does not keep a list of departments that use body cameras — standards of use for which have not yet been set by state legislators.
That could soon change, however, as lawmakers across the country, following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, have committed to examining a slew of police reforms, including body cameras.
A Massachusetts State Senate bill put forth July 6 proposes a task force to propose uniform regulations on use of the cameras statewide, while U.S. Senate Republicans have called for regulations punishing departments that don't use such cameras.
With so many calling for increased police scrutiny — and with federal cash possibly being tied to cameras in the future — many in law enforcement see cameras as inevitable.
"I think you're going to see it (everywhere) at some point," said Kenneth Antanavica, chief of police in Leicester, which has rotated two cameras among its less than 20 officers for nearly a decade now.
While Antanavica and other chiefs said they like the cameras, they said reasoned — not rushed — public policy is needed to ensure affordability and success.
"I'd love to have it for every officer, but we need to handle the cost," said Antanavica, who, like many other chiefs, may be staring at budget constraints in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The COVID-19 situation adds to the financial uncertainty of our budgets and the misguided 'De-fund' police movement taking place in some communities, is also not conducive to adding new programs such as body cameras," said Dudley Police Chief Steven J. Wojnar.
"Cost, Cost, Cost"
About 15 area chiefs responded to T&G questions about body cameras. Three already have cameras in some form, many said they are looking into the technology, and nearly all said price was the largest hurdle.
"Cost, cost, cost," Lyver said regarding why Northboro does not have the devices, which many officers say weed out frivolous complaints and come in handy as evidence.
Antanavica and his counterparts in West Brookfield and Petersham said officers have acclimated well to the cameras, and are appreciative of the assistance they afford in proving allegations in court, particularly in drunk driving cases.
"The first time you get a conviction on an OUI — which is so hard to do — because of the video evidence? That sold them," said C. Thomas O'Donnell, chief in West Brookfield, which has used cameras for nearly a decade.
Dana Cooley, Petersham's chief, said his officers — who, in his small town of 1,250 residents, are only on one per shift — also appreciate the cameras, which he originally purchased several years ago with an insurance grant.
"For them, it's protection," Cooley said, adding that, as soon as someone with complaints about an officer is aware there's video, it "changes everything."
Some studies have shown reductions in civilian complaints and use of force in departments using body cameras, although there are also studies that show a negligible impact.
The latter studies were cited Friday by members of Defund WPD, a group advocating for a shifting of funding from Worcester police to other departments, in a news release opposing body cameras in Worcester.
Eliana Stanislawski, an organizer with the group and an adult ESL teacher in Worcester, said Friday that city police have not demonstrated a commitment to transparency that would warrant the budget increase needed to cover the cameras.
Stanislawski noted the department has been fighting the T&G on requests for police disciplinary records for years, and does not believe cameras would increase transparency unless a culture of secrecy in the department changes first.
Worcester Police Chief Steven M. Sargent declined an interview request on the topic of body cameras, but gave support for them in a statement, writing they would "increase transparency, resolve complaints, de-escalate volatile situations, and improve our training."
Momentum is building on the City Council to outfit officers with cameras by next January, which is expected to cost $3 million to start.
Chiefs in smaller departments said that while buying the devices might be feasible, it's the storage that is the most expensive thing in the long run.
Hours and hours of videos require several gigabytes of space, and then there's the question of whether to store the information locally or have someone else do it.
Thomas Galvin, Berlin's police chief, said he'd rather have a third party manage the data to avoid any chance of somebody claiming data was manipulated or purposely destroyed.
"If funding was not an issue I would like to have each full-time officer assigned their own (camera)," Galvin added.
Several of the chiefs contacted said they welcome cameras in order to inspire public confidence and, most importantly, protect the reputation of their officers.
Edwin H. Burgwinkel, chief in Lancaster, said union resistance has been the cog stopping him from adding cameras.
"Despite my plea that my officers needed them, to protect themselves against false claims made by suspects, the union could only see the negative effect of disciplinary actions being brought against the officers who were wearing these cameras," he wrote.
Burgwinkel said he doesn't employ "bad" officers, and believes video evidence of their professionalism is important now more than ever.
"We no longer live in a world where police officers are believed solely based upon the fact that they are police officers," he said. "The reality is that we now live in a world where criminals are more likely to be taken at their word than law enforcement officials.
"Every encounter is scrutinized by numerous sources who were not present nor whom have any background in the specific event. Unfortunately this is the new norm in police work and I feel strongly that every officer needs the ability to back up their words and their actions with video."
"See How This Evolves"
While Burgwinkel said he will continue to advocate for cameras in town, other chiefs, although receptive, say they'd like to wait and see how the many public policy issues surrounding the cameras play out.
Should officers wear the cameras all the time? Should they be forced to turn them off if a person asks? How much of the footage should be public?
Those are all questions police chiefs mentioned in their emails to the T&G, and there are a multitude of opinions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, in its suggested regulations, would require officers to stop filming if requested to in private settings — an idea multiple local chiefs oppose.
"I would only consider body cameras for my department if they are on for (every) interaction my officers have with any member of the public," said Southbridge Chief Shane D. Woodson, sentiment echoed by Ashburnham Chief Loring Barrett Jr.
Barrett — whose department has used cruiser cameras for more than a decade — was among the majority of chiefs who also had concerns about the costs of responding to record requests.
In order to provide video under the law and protect privacy, software is often needed to blur people's faces. Chief Wojnar estimated it might take a full-time officer — at a cost of up to $80,000 annually — just to respond to such requests.
One bill filed recently at the state level would exempt body camera video from public records laws — a provision critics say defeats the purpose of transparency.
Lyver said he supports that bill. He wrote that while he would personally like to see videos in controversial cases released quickly to foster transparency, videos often need to be withheld prior to court proceedings to ensure a fair trial.
Lyver opined that 95 percent of videos would exonerate officers — and many videos would show how much entitled conduct officers put up with and how often they help people – but that such videos would "never see the light of day."
He wrote the concept of cameras is to assure professional behavior from officers, "not entertainment of the masses," and added that his research has shown that record requests would create an immense burden on resources.
Spencer Police Chief David Darrin suggested that, while the public should have access to video in high-profile cases, video in most instances should be limited to the people depicted.
Doing that, he said, would eliminate possible large-scale requests — like a request for all vehicle stops over a period of time — that could prove draining on department resources.
Other suggestions from chiefs include creating a central repository at the state where videos would be stored and public record requests could be fulfilled.
That way, chiefs noted, everyone would be on equal footing, and the dreaded "unfunded mandate" aspect would be less cumbersome.
Given all the questions surrounding funding and implementation of body cameras, some chiefs say they plan on monitoring the debate before pushing for cameras.
"My plan at this time is to see how this evolves within Massachusetts (reforms/mandates etc...) and other departments before we think about moving forward," said Nick L. Miglionico, chief in Douglas.
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