Labor agreement gives look into police body camera program
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — The city of Springfield has released a labor agreement that gives the first glimpse at how the Springfield Police Department plans to implement body cameras on officers.
City and police leaders had for years voiced support for body cameras, which have been touted as a way of both increasing police accountability and protecting officers from false allegations.
Following years of labor negotiations, city, police and patrolman’s union officials announced last month that they had agreed on a body camera policy. Each officer on patrol will be expected to wear a camera.
Some details of the planned body camera program remain unclear, including the potential cost of the equipment and data storage and how soon the cameras will be rolled out. The labor deal must still be approved by the Springfield City Council, and the Springfield police supervisor’s union must also sign a new contract before it can take effect.
But the body camera policy, released Friday ahead of a City Council hearing next week, shows how Springfield plans to handle thorny questions about privacy, surveillance and public access to footage.
Officers will be expected to activate their cameras during a wide range of encounters with the general population, with exceptions for safety and privacy concerns.
The policy lays out a series of situations that officers are required to record: vehicle stops, pat frisks, searches, detentions and initial suspect interviews, K9 searches, emergency driving with lights and sirens activated, car chases and crowd control incidents that “may result in unlawful activity.”
The cameras should also be activated during any hostile confrontations or uses of force, the policy says.
Officers are allowed to use their discretion if they cannot immediately activate their cameras for safety reasons, and are generally. expected to inform civilians that they are being recorded.
In public, officers do not need the permission of civilians to record. But in private homes, officers will be limited in their authority to shoot video.
“Before entering a private residence without a warrant or in non-exigent circumstances, the BWC officer shall seek the occupant’s consent to continue to record in the residence,” the policy says. “If the civilian declines to give consent, and in the absence of exigent circumstances, the BWC officer shall not record in the residence.”
The policy also suggests that officers use discretion when recording in other places where people may expect privacy like hospitals, law offices and places of worship. In some circumstances, officers could only record audio instead.
Patrolmen are expected to state their reasoning on-camera whenever they choose to de-activate their cameras during an encounter with the public.
Police will be allowed to access footage to assist in investigations, and the policy recognizes concerns that body cameras could be used as a surveillance tool.
Civilians should not be recorded based on their political or religious beliefs or for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and protest, the policy says.
“Footage shall not be reviewed to identify the presence of individual participants at such events who are not engaged in unlawful conduct. (Body worn cameras) will not include technological enhancements including, but not limited to, facial recognition or night-vision capabilities.”
Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Tech for Liberty program, commended the department for prohibiting the use of facial recognition software.
“No police department should use face recognition algorithms on body cameras,” Crockford said in a statement.
When officers are given permission to film in a private home, the policy says they should avoid needlessly recording parts of the home unrelated to the incident and should not use footage to create an inventory of a homeowner’s possessions.
The policy leaves open the possibility that police could use footage to identify protesters who trespass, refuse orders to disperse, block traffic or otherwise break the law.
Patrolmen will be able to review their body cam footage to help with preparation for court testimony, assisting in investigations and responding to internal affairs inquiries. Police can also view other officers’ footage with permission from a superior officer.
Rules are stricter following a incident involving the use of deadly force. The policy requires that Major Crimes Unit supervisors take possession of the cameras and ensure footage is uploaded into the system before officers involved in a shooting can view the footage.
But the policy explicitly says that officers will be able to view recordings of a deadly force encounter before making a statement to investigators. While the policy suggests that allowing officers to review footage makes reports more accurate, Crockford voiced concerns that it also allows officers to craft more credible cover stories if they did commit misconduct.
“Police should not be able to review footage of an incident before writing a report, particularly when an officer has shot or killed someone,” Crockford said. “But the SPD policy encourages officers to do so, meaning officers can craft a narrative that fits with what’s depicted on the video, even if it’s not the truth. That’s a significant flaw that must be addressed in order for the cameras to function as effective accountability tools.”
Body camera footage can be requested under Massachusetts’ public records law, the policy says. All requests will be funneled through the Police Commissioner’s Office, including those from victims and witnesses.
The department will store mundane footage for no longer than a year but will keep recordings relating to any investigation, lawsuit or use-of-force incident for at least three years.
The policy also includes labor protections for officers who will suddenly find their every interaction with civilians accessible to internal affairs investigators.
The department’s Internal Investigations Unit will not be allowed to randomly review footage, and minor rule violations observed in recordings will be treated as “training opportunities,” the policy says -- not incidents requiring formal discipline.
Officers will also not be disciplined for “minor violations” of the body camera policy. William Mahoney, the city’s director of human resources and labor relations, told MassLive there is no fixed definition of what constitutes minor and major violations of the policy.
“Violations will be looked at on a case by case basis,” Mahoney wrote in an email.
Before this summer’s agreement to implement body cameras, city officials had voiced concerns about potential cost -- both for the camera hardware and the data storage infrastructure needed to hold tens of thousands of hours of footage.
Storage costs can quickly exceed the cost of the cameras themselves. Axon -- the company formerly known as Taser International -- has offered police departments across the country, including Springfield, free body cams and storage for a year. But once the free trial is up, data storage can cost between $50 to $100 per officer each month, Marketplace reported last year.
“The city will have to go through the procurement process to select a vendor and make a number of technical decisions before we can arrive at a cost,” Mahoney wrote in an email.
Information from: The Springfield (Mass.) Republican, http://www.masslive.com/news/