NEW BEDFORD — The city and police union this month entered a new contract that will open the door for officers to begin wearing body cameras.
As of the fall of 2022, an estimated 65 police departments in Massachusetts, or 20%, have body camera programs at varying stages of development and deployment, according to a spokesperson for the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
“The Union agrees that the City has satisfied its bargaining obligations with respect to implementation of the Police Department’s Body Worn [Camera] (BWC) policy and procedures,” reads a new article in the city-union contract. “Prior to implementation … the City will provide officers with training on [body cameras], the policy, and on the use of [body cameras].”
“These devices can serve as powerful instruments of transparency and accountability, fostering trust between officers and the community we serve,” said Police Chief Paul Oliveira in an emailed statement. “Body-camera footage protects both citizens and police officers alike from false accusations and misrepresentations.”
The New Bedford Police Union in a statement said it “recognizes the importance of this technology” and its benefits for both police officers and the public.
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“The next natural step for us would be to start working on a policy,” Union President Lt. Evan Bielski told The Light. “I haven’t heard anything on the city’s timeline on getting cameras … even if the city says we’re two years out, I would hope we could start getting a policy drafted up and at least be ready to go with it.”
An NBPD spokesperson said the department does not yet have a body camera policy in place.
Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said Massachusetts police departments started seeing an introduction and increase in the use of body cameras amid nationwide police reforms in 2020.
Body cameras are “typically met with skepticism when they’re first brought into the department, because for the rank and file officers … it’s kind of like Big Brother is going to be watching me,” Leahy said. “But what we find is that very quickly they adapt to having them … I think it makes better gentlemen and ladies out of our police officers who know that everything they say and do is being recorded.”
Michael White, professor at the school of criminology at Arizona State University and co-author on a book about body cameras in policing, said the latest survey data from 2020 suggests about 66% of law enforcement agencies use the devices. He said they started to get widely adopted around 2015.
“It’s gotten to the point now where communities expect their officers to have body-worn cameras and if that’s not the case, they want to know why,” he said.
White said unions and rank and file officers have expressed concern over which supervisors will have access to footage and when, but he noted that can be addressed during policy development.
“One of the most important things for a chief or leadership to do is articulate up front what your goals are,” he said, and to engage stakeholders like officers, community advocates, citizens, attorneys and other government agencies.
A task force established by the state’s public safety office in its final report in 2022 issued a series of policy recommendations, including having an audit log for every time a video is moved, reviewed or exported; having the camera activate whenever a user interacts with a member of the public; disciplining officers who don’t turn on or intentionally shut off their camera during a use of force incident; and terminating officers who repeatedly violate the department’s body camera policy.
“Our mantra is that a good comprehensive [body camera] policy is going to lead to good [body camera] practice,” said White. “There’s a ton of guidance out there that should be covered, and for a department that’s getting started, that’s great because you have a lot of precedent you can look at.”
Shea Cronin, a professor of criminal justice at Boston University, said body cameras can be thought of as one tool in a police accountability toolkit.
“When we talk about effectiveness, does it reduce use of force, does it reduce complaints against the police, does it improve the quality of the interactions between the police and public?” he said.
Cronin said a condition that may improve program outcomes is a policy that the cameras are used regularly, not just as a check for when there is a use of force event or potential misconduct.
“When it’s used as more of an ongoing training tool where supervisors are reviewing the videos of their patrol officers and giving feedback … I think they have a real potential to be beneficial, to help the supervisors coach officers, teach them better the craft of being a police officer,” he said.
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White, who has published a review of existing research on body cameras, said studies have shown the devices can reduce complaints against officers (including frivolous ones) and the use of force by officers.
On the potential use as a training tool, he said artificial intelligence may play a role in the future, with companies developing programs that can review vast amounts of department footage, and create and analyze transcripts from it to find patterns or look for the use of certain words, such as “gun.”
Leahy said the storage capabilities that are needed to retain the large amounts of data can add significantly to program costs, as well as personnel demands for redacting the footage and responding to public records requests for it.
If the cameras are used on a regular basis, that would create more data.
White said the cost of a body camera program is “by far” the biggest challenge for departments, and that the largest expense is the ongoing management of data.
The state task force last year said the financial impact of a body camera program on police departments requires “significant financial support” to launch and maintain.
A body-worn camera program for the city’s police department is estimated to cost approximately $2 million over five years, an NBPD spokesperson told The Light.
The state in its 2024 body camera grant announcement estimates the average cost of a camera is $1,000, and the average cost for a server for video storage is $1,000 per camera. New Bedford has just over 200 officers.
“Our politicians were real big on body cameras, but it’s a lot more than saying here’s some grant money,” Leahy said. “They need to find a central storage solution and give us some administrative support.”
Storage expenses can also be compounded by state records law, which dictates how long government offices must retain records, which can range from months to years.
New Bedford was one of 64 communities in Massachusetts to be awarded funding in late 2021, the first year of a five-year, $20 million state program that is expected to deploy thousands of body cameras, according to a release from the then-Baker-Polito administration.
NBPD was awarded about $250,000; the department did not confirm whether it spent the funds or retained any unused grant money.
A state spokesperson for the grant program said by email that the body camera program is a “reimbursement grant,” and the period during which all purchases for that round needed to be completed and reimbursements submitted ended in October of 2022. The spokesperson said no reimbursement payments were made to NBPD.
In its 2021 application, NBPD stated it wanted to use the grant to “outfit as many officers with body cameras as possible.” Based on cost estimates by the state, NBPD proposed initially equipping 125 patrol officers with cameras, as they primarily respond to 911 calls and interact with the public more frequently.
“With the lessons learned during a tumultuous time for the police profession, transparency is critical to maintaining the public trust,” read the department’s application. “Repeated calls have been made for the implementation of a body camera program by citizen and police groups alike.”
A petition to require New Bedford police officers to use body cameras received more than 9,000 signatures in 2020 amid the protests and calls for police reform after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
A city commission on the use of force, convened by Mayor Jon Mitchell in 2020, in its final report also recommended the city undertake a pilot program to test body cameras, stating “all funding sources be leveraged” to implement and sustain a body camera program.
White said there are avenues to funding at both the state and federal levels, noting the U.S. Department of Justice has given more than $100 million to law enforcement agencies. White is co-director of training for the DOJ’s body camera policy and implementation program, which works with departments adopting a camera program.
He said many departments ultimately have to make the program a line item in their budgets so that a permanent funding source is established.
As for the timeline of getting a program up and running, White said that’s a tough question to answer, but that it should not take years.
There are many factors that affect the timeline, such as collective bargaining activity, procurement rules, existing infrastructure, funding, and community pressure to deploy the program, he said.
He said generally, he tries to move agencies that get federal funding through the process in about six months.
“Some are much quicker, some much slower. But if you are asking for a reasonable average time, that would be it,” White said.
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com.