What’s it going to take for Mayor Walsh to fully embrace putting body cameras on Boston police officers?
After some prodding, the mayor agreed to a pilot program equipping some officers with cameras to record their interactions with citizens. Amid a national discussion on police brutality, civil rights groups in Boston and elsewhere have been pressing authorities for the cameras, hoping they would provide video evidence in cases of police misconduct.
Now the preliminary results from the pilot program are in. While the cameras don’t seem to offer a panacea, the study suggests that they do have benefits that would justify making the program permanent.
The study of the Boston police body camera pilot consisted of 100 devices and nearly 281 officers in five districts and plainclothes officers in the gang unit. A total of 121 officers wore the cameras, while a similar number of officers wore no devices and were used as a baseline measure — the so-called control group.
The findings “suggest that the placement of body-worn cameras on Boston Police officers may generate small benefits to the civility of police-citizen civilian encounters.” Compared with those who didn’t wear the devices, officers with cameras received fewer citizen complaints and generated fewer use-of-force reports. The reduction in the complaints was big enough to be statistically significant, while that of the use-of-force reports wasn’t. The study did not document any harmful effects for officers or the public from the cameras. A more comprehensive analysis will be released in June.
Despite the positive findings, Walsh remains noncommittal. On a recent radio appearance, he cited an analysis of the Washington, D.C., police body camera program, where roughly 1,000 officers wore the devices. Researchers concluded that officers with cameras were as likely to use force as those without them.
But there are other advantages to body cameras that are more difficult to measure. For one, footage from the devices provides an accurate resource for investigations. The cameras can also exonerate officers. In some encounters, civilians may feel more at ease or perceive the interaction as more “just” if the officer is wearing a camera. There is value in those positive perceptions, even if it doesn’t show up in statistics.
The ability of the cameras to bolster public confidence is a big reason why advocates for body cameras in Boston, including this page, have long pushed the city to commit to a permanent camera program.
“It is up to the mayor now to decide how to implement it, not if,” said Segun Idowu, of the Boston Police Camera Action Team.
It would be unfortunate if police officers in Boston perceived the program as a threat. The department has made great strides — so great that rising public confidence in the police complicated the body camera study. Use-of-force reports went from 107 in 2013 to 60 in 2016, while citizen complaints decreased from 360 to 199 in the same period. That trend, coupled with the relatively small number of participating officers, “makes it challenging to estimate the true impact” of the cameras, the researchers wrote. Boston is on the right track. The police, and the mayor, should view body cameras as a way to stay there.