Police body camera panel faces “most contentious issue”

Boston Statehouse
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BOSTON (State House News Service) – Members of a panel tasked with recommending policies for local law enforcement to implement the use of police officer body cameras are grappling with a legislative requirement that officers be prohibited from reviewing footage before making a statement or filing an incident report.

State Police Detective Captain Steven McCarthy, a member of the Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force, called it “the most contentious issue we’re working on.” And Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said it was “incongruous” that the task force’s hands be tied by the 2020 policing reform law that put the development of recommended regulations in the hands of the 25-member group.

“I’m very troubled that the Legislature has created this task force and then is directing this task force to make a certain recommendation. That seems incongruous. What are we doing here if not to make recommendations about specifically how the police will implement the body-worn camera?” O’Keefe said during a Tuesday meeting.

The 2020 policing reform law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis created the task force and directed it to develop regulations that could be used by law enforcement agencies for everything from the procurement of cameras to training and privacy protections.

The law specifically states that the regulations should include “a requirement preventing an officer from accessing or viewing any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident … “

Dan Nakamoto, an advisor to the task force from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, suggested reaching out to academics to find any research into how the memories of police officers can be impacted by taking additional time to review camera footage.

“I’d be curious about the science,” Nakamoto said.

Rose King, a lawyer with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, questioned whether the task force had any leeway to deviate from the Legislature’s directive, and O’Keefe suggested that the task force could simply acknowledge the Legislature’s position and go on to detail their disagreement and reasoning.

Suleyken Walker, counsel to the group from the Executive Office of Public Safety, said she did not believe anything in the law would stop the task force from recommending that a police officer be allowed to write an addendum to an initial incident report after reviewing body camera footage.

One of the challenges, Walker said, is that there’s not much legislative history such as testimony or public statements by lawmakers to give insight into why the Legislature included the requirement because the policing reform law was crafted largely without public hearings.

“There’s even less legislative history than normal in Massachusetts, which is already very little,” Walker said.

State officials say that 10 percent of municipal police departments in Massachusetts have a body-worn camera program in operation, and a survey conducted by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association found that 75 percent of departments in both major cities and smaller towns are interested in starting a program.

The Baker administration announced last week that it had awarded $4 million to 64 municipal police departments to start or expand police-worn body camera programs in a first round of funding as part of a 5-year, $20 million grant program.

Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent said his department qualified for a $250,000 grant, but to access the money he must first reach an agreement with the police officer union on a memorandum of understanding.

Sargent said he’s likeLY to be able to launch a body-camera program in his department within the next few months, but he asked what types of agreements other departments were reaching with unions to make that possible. He said he must sign an MOU by October with his union to access the state grant.

“It is the biggest change in policing, I believe, in 100 years going back to radios for the men and women in blue in terms of what they have to do, changing their job description,” Sargent said, adding, “I want to make sure we don’t blue sky, they don’t blue sky. I just want to be reasonable.”

Salisbury Police Chief Thomas Fowler said a survey by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Associations found a wide range of concessions being made, including some unions that have voluntary accepted a program and others that are still at the bargaining table.

The task force has until July 31 to adopt recommended regulations, but was late in filing an interim report to the Legislature that did not include any proposed regulations or legislative changes that would be needed to implement those policies. That interim report was due last July, but the task force did not even meet for the first time until September and sent a short update to the Legislature on Dec. 22.

Angela Davis, undersecretary of law enforcement and criminal justice, said the task force’s goal is for its various subcommittees to present draft regulatory proposals at its next meeting on Jan. 14. Some subcommittee heads said they would be able to meet that goal, but others said they would need more time.

“I would remind you that it is important that we proceed thoughtfully with our robust discussion both on this task force and in our subcommittees and we need to remain steadfast to meet our obligations in a timely fashion,” Davis said.

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