Boston's Police Reform Task Force heard directly from the public for the first time Wednesday during a low-key virtual session about body cameras.
The 11 members of the task force, whom Mayor Marty Walsh appointed last month, had previously met in private. Its first public “listening session” drew many questions and silent pauses as about 70 participants focused on the department’s current policies on body cameras.
The inquisitive tone contrasted with the weeks of loud protests in Boston demanding changes in the practices and funding of city police.
“Is there thought in how to integrate these body-worn cameras with the concept of data availability?” asked a woman who identified herself only as Elena. “Will data availability and publicizing of this data be a part of body cam implementation?”
Megan Lucey, another participant, asked whether the “body cam overtime and protest exemption is still in place, and if so, why are these in place?”
Boston Police officers are not required to turn on body cameras during overtime shifts, which can include monitoring protests in public areas.
Darrin Howell, a task force member who led the listening session, responded to both inquiries by saying such comments and suggestions would inform the panel’s recommendations to Walsh.
Boston’s body camera program was first developed in 2014 by the Boston Police Camera Action Team and was led by Segun Idowu, now executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Shekia Scott, the recently resigned director of community outreach for the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.
A pilot program was developed, then delayed after the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association brought a case to Suffolk Superior Court. The test period eventually moved forward with an exemption for overtime shifts, as well as exemptions for detectives, superior officers and command staff.
Last May, when the BPD implemented its current body camera program, the department said 193 officers would be expected to wear cameras during incidents like vehicle stops, pat frisks and searches, prison transports and driving pursuits. The Boston Globe reports of this spring, about half of the department’s roughly 2,000 officers have trained and equipped with cameras.
Howell indicated task force members have spoken with Idowu and Scott, as well as Rahsaan D. Hall, director of the state’s ACLU Racial Justice Program, about their ongoing concerns about a lack of disciplinary measures and consent to record, and allowing officers to review footage before submitting incident reports.
A participant in the listening session who identified himself as Chad asked, “How much of the recently passed budget,” goes toward the purchase and training for body cameras?
“You’re not, probably, going to get an answer,” responded Howell, noting that the listening session was intended for collecting feedback only.
Some attendees responded to questions the task force raised about the issues of public access to and department usage of footage, the privacy of private citizens, and disciplining officers for not using their body cameras.
Asked what should happen to officers who violate body camera policies, a woman whose first name is Michelle said the discussion about body cameras saddened her.
“It’s a shame that we even need body cams [and] that the recruiting and hiring of police officers and the education of them isn’t sufficient enough to weed out people who do not have open hearts and minds, and weed out people who have maybe issues with anger and violence,” she said, suggesting some technology that would automatically turn cameras on and off, absolving officers of the responsibility.
“I think someone turning off a body cam and a death resulting — automatically, something needs to happen, that needs to be an automatic violation,” she said.
Another participant suggested body camera video be maintained and incorporated into officer training and review.
“It just seems to me the video is very useful as training material. I’ve worked in human services for many, many years, and I learned gradually to get better at dealing with people,” said a woman who identified herself as Cassie. “Having that video is enormously helpful for the officers involved in training.”
Task force members are scheduled to hear from the public again Thursday afternoon on the topic of implicit bias training and next week on the use of force and strengthening an existing civilian review board.