In the wake of last week’s bloodshed in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, people across the country are asking what they can do to improve the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve, especially those with diverse populations. Possible responses include the following: you could support efforts to train officers about implicit racial bias and the tools used to thwart it; curb the militarization of law enforcement; and limit access to high-powered firearms for civilians. All good ideas, but seemingly unattainable or too abstract for many of us to rally around.
Here’s something concrete to do in Massachusetts: urge your local police department to require its officers to wear “body cameras” affixed to their lapels to record all interactions with civilians. There are two chief benefits to this protocol. First, body cameras create a record of violent encounters that capture the general perspective from which the officer viewed the suspect. This evidence can help implicate—or exonerate—officers in the aftermath of a police-involved shooting. Second, people tend to exercise more caution when they believe they are being monitored. This means officers as well as citizens may be less inclined to respond aggressively when they know they are being recorded. By deterring encounters from escalating at the front end, we diminish the risk of fatalities on the back end.
To be sure, there are complications associated with body cameras. Among them are the costs of acquisition, the burdens of storage, the privacy interests of people being recorded, and the consequences of a malfunction or the purposeful misuse of a device by the police. But those details should not overshadow the big-picture benefits of body cameras. We can work those problems out, just as jurisdictions across the nation have done over the past few years.
Indeed, despite the reputation of Massachusetts for progressivism—fueled in part by the masterful public relations work of local law enforcement—the Commonwealth lags behind many other states when it comes to criminal justice policy in general and body camera usage in particular. A bill in the Massachusetts legislature that would require police-worn body cameras statewide has stalled, with the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security asking for a “study order” from the Senate’s Rules Committee to allow more time to review the legislation after the current session ends on July 31. Even if the study order is granted, consideration of the bill by the full legislature is a long way off and passage far from certain.
So, it’s up to our local communities to assume responsibility for body cameras. Only a handful of cities and towns actually use them at the moment. Methuen implemented a year-long pilot program last year and in May 2016 outfitted every one of its officers with a body camera. That project will cost the city roughly $270,000 over five years, a small price to pay if it avoids a single violent incident or even if it only bolsters the community’s faith in its law enforcement team.
Many other departments are “studying” body cameras and considering pilot programs, including the Boston Police Department. In September 2015, Commissioner William Evans of the BPD announced plans for a body camera pilot program; he later indicated that he planned to roll out testing of the cameras by the Spring of 2016. Nevertheless, even after a series of community meetings and a City Council hearing, the pilot program has yet to launch.
It’s hard for a law professor to take issue with studying important topics. But as the events of last week—really, the last two years—demonstrate, it’s time for action.
Police-worn body cameras are not the full solution to a problem that has vexed our nation for generations. They would help, though, to improve accountability and build trust. You can speed the process along by contacting your mayor, your city councilor, and your police chief. Please make a simple request: ask your town to have its officers don body cameras.