Body Camera items on tonight’s City Council agenda

There are many items on tonight’s City Council agenda regarding body cameras in particular and the Worcester Police Department in general.

From the public:

8f. Eliana Stanislawski et al. request the City Council to acknowledge that despite rapid implementation across the country, police body cameras have been documented to have had no consistent or significant effect on police officer behavior.

8g. Eliana Stanislawski et al. request City Council to commit to obtaining any funding for a police body camera program from within the Worcester Police Department budget, rather than taking it from other departments.

8h. Nathan Cummings request the City Council take no binding votes regarding the implementation of a new police body camera program until the Worcester Police Department provides its full report on the body camera pilot program, which ended in October of 2019, and time is allowed for robust public debate on the merits of the new program.

8i. Nathan Cummings request the most recent report(s) summarizing performance measures and statistics for the Worcester Police Department (WPD), and those same reports for the preceding five (5) years, be made prominently available on the WPD page of the website of the City of Worcester.

From the WPD:

9.10.A Transmitting informational communication relative to a report regarding information on the Body-Worn Camera Pilot Program.

From various councilors:

11l. Request City Manager initiate a permanent body camera program for the Worcester Police Department to be put in place by January 1, 2021. Funding for said program should be prioritized and consider all funding mechanisms, including new growth monies. (Sean Rose)

11u. Request City Manager fund and pilot public safety and public health enhancement initiatives in FY21, including but not limited to Alternative Deployment Policy Development/Negotiations, full funding and implementation of the use of body cameras for the Worcester Police Department and a City of Worcester Transparency Improvement Plan. (Khrystian King)

11v. Request City Manager negotiate a Worcester Police Department Body Camera memorandum of understanding (MOU) and immediately resume the Body Camera pilot program with leeway for incremental expansion. Said MOU would terminate upon successful negotiation and permanent implementation of the Police Body Camera Program. (Khrystian King)

How did we get here?

(links to Worcester Telegram articles can be accessed via your library card/password)

By 2011, numerous local communities (though not necessarily Worcester) began looking at both body cameras and cruiser cameras to collect evidence and potentially avoid lawsuits. (Article: Nowhere to hide – Police cameras everywhere becoming standard – August 1, 2011)

After police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, the Worcester police began a study of body cameras. (Editorial: Don’t blink quite yet – Body cameras being studied for Worcester PD – September 3, 2014)

In December 2014, the city used some of the CSX mitigation money for two surveillance cameras; some prominent citizens said they would have preferred the money go to body cameras. Police chief Gary Gemme said that the WPD was “following a process of reviewing potential policies that would be needed to implement this equipment [body cameras and a vehicle-mounted camera system], along with conducting field tests with the devices to ensure that we have a successful program in place before adopting this technology” (Article: Surveillance cams get OK for two Worcester neighborhoods – December 4, 2014; editorial: Light and dark – Surveillance and body cameras not cure-alls – December 7, 2014; article: Police test waters of transparency – December 18, 2014)

By May 2015, the city was moving forward with equipping arrest wagons and all booking cells with cameras. Chris Robarge, then of the ACLU, continued to push for body cameras, while noting that they were not foolproof; he referred to two prominent cases of police brutality involved officers who knew they were on camera. City Manager Augustus felt that the cost was a challenge: “There’s a phenomenal amount of storage required. It’s for (about) 500 officers working 40 hours a week or more. … We’re trying to figure that whole piece out.” (article: Worcester PD zooms in on more cameras – May 30, 2015)

The following week, the WPD accepted a gift of $25,000 from the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and used it to buy plate readers. It was noted that the grant money could have been used for body cameras. (article: Some fear invasion of privacy – Police get funds for license readers – June 6, 2015; editorial: The future is knocking – June 10, 2015)

On August 18, 2015, State Police and Worcester Police SWAT delivered a no-knock warrant to an apartment on Hillside Street, injuring two people and frightening another three. The person for whom the warrant was issued was living near Canterbury Street and was regularly reporting to pretrial probation three times a week. The then-new State Police Colonel, Richard D. McKeon, a Worcester native, ‘made a point of discussing goals for greater transparency, including consideration of body cameras and “dash cams” for state police cruisers and improved response times for public records requests.’ I mention this because it was a horrible, preventable incident that could have had much clarity from camera footage. (editorial: Three months later – December 3, 2015)

In January 2016, 15 months after the WPD began their study of body cameras and dashboard cruiser cameras, City Manager Augustus said he was going to present recommendations to the council that spring. Storage cost for three years’ worth of video seemed to be a sticking point; at the time the “estimated cost for 578 terabytes of storage [was] about $440,000 for a single site storage and $881,000 for replicated storage.” (article: Worcester Council wants report – Police cam use gets a closer look – January 14, 2016)

My perusal of Telegram records doesn’t show that the city manager made that proposal by spring 2016. In May 2016, Steven Sargent was promoted to police chief. The Telegram reported: “Asked about body cameras for police and additional surveillance cameras for headquarters, the city manager said he is committed to working with Deputy Chief Sargent on implementing that technology. He said Deputy Chief Sargent has been involved in talks about placing devices around the building to record all times when a prisoner is in custody.” (article: Worcester Police Department – Sargent promoted to chief – May 6, 2016)

In May 2017, a year after taking the position of police chief (and also a year after Ed Augustus was supposed to report on body cameras to the city council), Steven Sargent was interviewed by the Telegram on a wide range of items, including body cameras:

A pilot program involving body cameras worn by officers is coming, but it is turning out to be more complicated than originally anticipated, Chief Sargent said. Police are working with the city Law Department and police unions on the program. He cautioned that there is a lot of constitutional law involved, and said some communities have had issues.

It’s definitely something we want to do, we want to get this pilot program going, to see what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.

(from the article Chief Sargent notches his first year as Worcester’s top cop –  May 21, 2017)

Over the next year, there were numerous calls from columnist Clive McFarlane and the Telegram editorial board to begin a body camera program. One of the main reasons was the case of Michael Motyka, a WPD officer who was found guilty of kicking a shackled prisoner in December 2014. (Clive McFarlane column: Double standard on law and order – May 17, 2017; editorial: The question of body cameras – October 19, 2017; editorial: The body camera question – bringing transparency to police work – October 29, 2017; Clive McFarlane column: Worcester police dragging feet on body cameras – June 6, 2018)

Finally, in June 2018, police chief Sargent said that he was finalizing the details on a pilot body camera program, more than two years after the city council was promised a proposal. (article: Plans to equip city police officers with body cameras – June 5 2018)

How did the body camera pilot program go?

There’s a report on tonight’s agenda (item 9.10 A) regarding the body camera program, which was a six-month (May 1, 2019-October 31, 2019) program with twenty officers. I’ll bullet-point what I found interesting:

  • The company Axon provided the cameras at no cost to the city.
  • 20 police officers volunteered to wear the cameras; at no point in this report does it mention the $250 incentive to wear the camera.
  • Officers only wore the cameras during their 40-hour workweek; no other assignments were recorded.
  • There were two camera failures during the program, but there were extra cameras that were swapped in. There is now a new model that should have improved performance and better audio recording capabilities.
  • Freedom of Information Act requests: the WPD estimates that for every hour of video they need to review, it would be 2-3 hours for each request.
  • District Attorney’s Office requests: the report says that if the WPD continued to use body cameras, the amount of time to process evidence requests from the DA’s Office “would not be sustainable” and they recommend that the DA’s Office have accounts that could be granted access to the data.
  • In order to fully implement the program, the WPD estimates it would take 5 additional officers and 2 officials to administer the program. ($4.06 million over 5 years)
  • It appears that the department would prefer to use the vendor Axon, and all of the pricing includes tasers. Costs for the cameras and tasers over 5 years would be between $4.4 – $5.7 million. (And, yes, it’s a little weird that we’re including the cost of tasers in this.)
  • But it’s also weird that the WPD is proposing giving every officer a department-issued mobile phone, to the tune of $750,000 over five years. This would be to review footage, and the report also says that they would likely need even more officers because of the time it would take to review/tag camera footage.
  • This is only a report of the experiences of 20 officers. There are no references to other communities who have been using cameras, or even a true comparison of different vendors.
  • I would urge you to read the end of the report (pp. 15-23) for the officers’ comments about the program and their interactions with the public.

What now?

Sean Rose‘s item on body cameras

Sean Rose had announced earlier this month that he was going to request that the body camera program be implemented January 1, 2021. At the time, nine other city councilors had signed on to his request (item 11l on the agenda).

It’s interesting that everyone but Councilor King was willing to sign on to a request without seeing a report from the WPD about the program, or even a sense of how much it would cost (including the need for additional staff).

It’s also interesting that this request was NOT brought up at budget time, during hours and hours of meetings, but now the request is that “[f]unding for said program should be prioritized and consider all funding mechanisms, including new growth monies.

Finally, having press releases that announce that a supermajority of the City Council is in support of something is a violation of the Open Meeting Law. What is the point of public discourse, or public input, if we already know that 10 city councilors’ minds are made up? (Nathan Cummings’ item brings this up – we need time for a “robust public debate.” We’ve been waiting six years for a report on this; we can certainly wait a little while longer to discuss this as a community.)

What problem are we trying to solve?

This is ultimately the question we are facing. If body cameras are the solution, or at least a solution, what is the problem? What are we expecting body cameras to do?

As the WPD body camera report says, the cameras can record someone’s worst day.

Are police the best response for all of these “worst days?”

That’s the biggest question facing us. How do we help — not handle — our fellow residents who are facing the worst day of their life? How can we best provide assistance to people around this city?

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