BOSTON (State House News Service) – More widespread use of body cameras ranks high among policing reform priorities, but a commission set up under the one-year-old reform law has missed its deadline to propose regulations governing standards for the procurement of body-worn cameras and vehicle dashboard cameras by law enforcement.
The law that Gov. Charlie Baker signed Dec. 31, 2020 required a 25-member task force established by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to file by July 31 an interim report on its work product, including proposed regulations and any legislation that might need to pass to effectuate the regulations.
The law requires the task force to propose regulations establishing a uniform code for the procurement and use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement officers to provide consistency throughout the state, and to propose minimum requirements for the storage and transfer of audio and video recordings collected by body-worn cameras.
The News Service inquired about the report and learned that it was never filed, largely because the commission itself didn’t come together until well after the reporting deadline and held its first meeting on Sept. 14.
“In light of the compressed schedule caused by the delayed convening of the members, the Taskforce does not presently have work product in the form of draft recommended regulations or proposed legislation to provide in this report,” task force chair Angela Davis wrote in a Dec. 22 letter to Sen. Walter Timilty (D-Milton) and Rep. Carlos Gonzalez (D-Springfield), the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
Over the summer, Gonzalez said body camera use would help carry out the mission of the reform law. He called cameras “a useful tool that keep both police officers and members of the public safe,” citing research that found cameras “reduce department costs, promote best practices, and improve police-community relations.”
The task force, Davis said, looks forward to presenting legislators with the recommended regulations for law enforcement’s use of body worn cameras on or before July 31, 2022, the date specified in the law for the task force’s adoption of recommended regulations.
State officials this summer estimated that only 10 percent of municipal police departments in the state operate a camera program, but cited a Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association poll indicating that more than three of every four departments in major cities and smaller communities are interested in starting a program.
Davis, the state’s assistant undersecretary for law enforcement and criminal justice, said in her letter that the task force has been “hard at work” since convening, created several subcommittees, developed a website, and held four of the five public hearings that are required under the reform law.
“The Taskforce’s intention is to develop a draft of the recommended regulations by early next
year and make them available for public input during the remaining public hearing,” according to Davis.
According to minutes from the task force’s Oct. 26 meeting, Davis described a January 2022 to April 2022 timeline for drafting a report but some task force members called that “aggressive” and “unrealistic.”
One member, Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent, cited “pressure from community leaders for municipalities to have a body camera program in place and they would like the recommendations from the Task Force in place first before rolling out a program.” According to the minutes, Salisbury Police Chief Thomas Fowler said that other police departments are waiting on task force recommendations to deploy a program.
No dates are listed under the “upcoming meetings” section of task force’s website, which lists its last meeting as in November.
Some departments have moved ahead with body cameras. On Dec. 16, the Massachusetts State Police announced that all sworn members across its divisions — a total of about 2,215 sworn personnel — have been assigned body cameras and trained in their operation and relevant department policies. The State Police said implementation of its cruiser camera program was “nearing completion,” with cameras installed in about 800 cruisers, with an additional 200 cruisers scheduled to be outfitted with mounted cameras.
“Our camera program assists in accurate documentation of Troopers’ interactions with suspects, victims, and members of the public,” State Police Superintendent Christopher Mason said. “This is essential to capturing evidence for criminal cases as well as memorializing the nature of interactions between Troopers and the public. Body camera video also provides a valuable training tool for recruits and existing officers.”
In late September, Norfolk County Sheriff Patrick McDermott announced his appointment to the task force, as the representative for the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association, and said the group represented “an important step in building strong relationships between law enforcement and the public.”
“It is imperative that we recognize the importance of the public’s trust in law enforcement and continue to develop positive relationships between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” McDermott said at the time. “I look forward to working alongside the other members of the taskforce to ensure that body-worn cameras can be used in a way that helps officers in their mission to serve and protect the public.”
On July 1, the Baker administration, as part of its capital spending plan, announced a competitive grant program to equip municipal police departments with body-worn cameras. The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security is managing the five-year, $20 million program, which is expected to fund 9,000 cameras as well as on-premises servers for secure video storage. The grants can help departments start or expand programs.
“We look forward to partnering with cities and towns to provide these important resources that will improve transparency and accountability,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at the time.
As part of their grant application, departments were required to submit a comprehensive deployment plan and specific ways the proposed program would enhance the agency’s mission. Applications were due by Aug. 30.
Massachusetts has a full-time, staffed Legislature with a long menu of joint committees charged with reviewing public policy proposals and making recommendations, but lawmakers over the years have increased their reliance on special commissions, often punting major topics to appointed panels that don’t always meet their deadlines.
Another commission created under the reform law was charged with studying government use of facial recognition technology, a topic that overlaps in some ways with the review of body-worn cameras by law enforcement.