Police body cameras seen as initial success for officers, public

By Seth Daniel

Special to the Gazette

In preliminary data unveiled at a Council hearing on Monday, March 12, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said the Boston Police body-worn camera pilot has been a success to date.

“The preliminary results are for the most part all positive,” he said. “I haven’t heard one complaint from the officers who are wearing them. I think a lot of them were encouraged by the cameras. I think it helped quell some disturbances they run into. When people see they’re on camera, sometimes they take it down a little bit. I think we’re seeing the value of taking it to court, especially in cases where we have it all on video. I know the District Attorney’s office likes them and the defense attorneys like them. Procedurally, in court, they’re good… I think the department, although a little reluctant to jump into it at first, has seen that it protects their members and helps us tremendously as we deal with the public. Sometimes, we deal with a public that unfortunately is not too nice to the police.”

The hearing before the Council was a first look at how the program has been going since implementation last June. Officers in five police districts, including D-4 in the South End, Back Bay and Fenway, were part of the pilot, and the city-wide Youth Violence Task Force was also involved.

Full results of the comparative study, which is run by Northeastern University, will be revealed in June.

Evans said, to date, they have 38,200 videos, and 4,600 hours of footage.

He said on two instances, frivolous complaints against officers were dismissed due to the video footage that exonerated the officer in question.

“They sort of back our officers on frivolous complaints,” he said. “The preliminary year data show we had 12 less civilian complaints against us in the year, one for each month, which is significant for 12 months. We also had seven less use of force incidents.”

Northeastern professor Anthony Braga, who is heading up the study, said that Boston’s rates of use of force and civilian complaints are very low in their base rates to start with, so measuring any change is hard to do.

That was unlike the Las Vegas Police Department, where he did another study on cameras. There, the base rates were very high, so there was a lot of room to study movement.

That said, preliminary results show that there was a statistically significant change in the reduction of complaints for those wearing the cameras versus those not wearing them.

“These are very low base rates and a relatively small sample in one year to observe a change in behavior…,” Braga said. “When we did the statistical analysis, we found some very small impacts relative to the size of the sample…For those officers that wore the camera versus those who didn’t, those wearing the camera had 12 fewer complaints…For use of force, the reduction was seven. We were able to confirm this relatively modest reduction in complaints was significant, meaning we didn’t observe it by chance alone. It wasn’t moving up or down by random fluctuations. The use of force was on the smaller size so it was hard to confirm that wasn’t just a chance occurrence… Stepping back and looking at it as a whole, it suggests these are small, but notable, improvements in those two dimensions.”

He said they will continue to analyze the data and the video footage that has been taken. Another thing they will analyze is whether there was change in officer behavior. Some believe that wearing the camera causes police to be less proactive, so Braga said they will analyze the numbers of arrests, incident reports and FIO stops made by officers participating in the pilot.

Braga praised Mayor Martin Walsh and Commissioner Evans for letting them conduct the “gold standard” in comparative studies, allowing the study to have 100 officers wearing the cameras and 100 not wearing cameras.

“It allows an apples to apples comparison,” he said.

Officers were selected at random in the pilot districts and had numerous demographic and professional differences as well. During the study, 21 officers wearing cameras were replaced with alternates due to reassignment or injury. There were 40 alternates selected at the beginning of the study, and the transition to alternates was seamless, police said.

Officers wearing the cameras had them on at all times while on duty. They were turned off on officer personal time. They were also turned off in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. They were also turned off, if requested, when going into people’s homes.

“We ask people when we’re going to their homes on the threshold if they want the camera on or off,” said Evans. “If they don’t want the camera on, it is turned off once the officer goes inside.”

The major issue, Evans said, is the cost of the cameras.

Supt. John Daley said that the cost is estimated at between $5 million and $7 million in the first year. Over five years, that could be $25 million. Part of that includes hiring at least 12 new civilians to work with the footage and fulfill information requests.

Council President Andrea Campbell said she has learned through the pilot, and after hearing the preliminary data, that body cameras are a good idea for the BPD.

“Though the process, I have only been able to say now that we should absolutely do body cameras,” she said. “Though our preliminary findings, but also the other benefits you suggest, this is the future of policing.”

Councilor Kim Janey said she is in favor of the cameras and fought for them before she was elected to the Council.

“A year ago I was in the audience advocating for the importance of body cameras,” she said. “I would say the report here affirmed that belief for me.”

Councilor Ed Flynn was curious about the cost of replacing the cameras, which were sometimes lost during foot chases or fights with arrestees.

“We had a few cameras in scuffles, but we sent them back to the manufacturer and it wasn’t a major problem to replace them,” said Daley.

Braga and his team will continue to analyze the data and will have a full report in June. At that time, a decision will be made about the cost versus the benefits to body cameras on police.

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