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Local Police Chiefs Favor Use of Body Cameras, But Funding Could Slow Implementation

Wikicommons / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Sander Flight /
Body cameras at a docking station.

The Mashpee Police Department will become one of only a few police stations across the state to use body cameras when it begins a pilot program next month.

Ten Mashpee police officers will wear the cameras as a way to increase transparency.

But what about other police officers around the Cape, South Coast and Islands?  

Chiefs across the region say that they support the use of body cameras, and many believe all of the departments could have program in place within the next several years.

A big reason most departments don't have body cameras programs in place now, they say is because of funding. The cameras themselves are not expensive, but there is a recurring cost associated with storage of footage. Departments can pay a yearly, flat fee for cloud storage. The Sandwich police department estimates that could be as much as $30,000 a year.

And then there’s an issue of public records. Some chiefs say they will likely get more requests from citizens if they have body cameras, which take time to process. Some say they would have to hire a new staffer just to review and edit footage.

Chief Bruce McNamee in Edgartown wrote his thesis on what it would cost to outfit the Plymouth department with body cameras, where he used to be an officer.  

Ultimately, he said it’s not just a simple flick of the switch to implement.  

“When a community advocates for body cameras, it’s certainly possible," the McNamee said. "They just need to understand there’s a huge back end of the work involved in disseminating that kind of data.”

But the chiefs I spoke to do generally support the use of cameras, because they say it could help the public understand the difficulties with policing. Chief McNamee acknowledged that it’s a difficult time for police right now nationwide, as public confidence in policing is at a low.

Despite that, McNamee is confident in his officers' work. He's not worried that footage will reveal poor conduct in his ranks. Quite the opposite.

McNamee says that the cameras could help citizens understand the dangers officers face on the job, and what type of situations they have to navigate day to day. 

And that could help departments gain back the public trust.

Sandwich Police Chief Peter Wack also said the cameras could be helpful, and he made a comparison between the cameras and the roll out of tasers. Originally, there was hesitation to the new tool. But police officers found that suspects were calmer in the presence a taser.

Wack said that likewise, suspects are also likely to be more cooperative when they’re being filmed. 

"If the media gets [the footage] and puts it up on YouTube, you could be a national spectacle for your inappropriate behavior to a police officer," Wack said. "So it has the ability to calm situations down just like the taser did when it was introduced.”

Some chiefs say they want to wait until the state government issues new rules and guidance on body cameras before starting their own program.

And they want grant opportunities to pay for the cameras and for storage. Right now, budgets are tight because of the pandemic, which is likely only to get worse.

But it's important to note that these body cameras won’t bankrupt towns. If town officials want officers outfitted, it could happen. Mashpee was able to give officers the cameras just by rearranging their budget priorities, according to town officials.

But while there has been a public call for the use of cameras on a national level, none of the chiefs WCAI spoke with said there has been that pressure locally.

Town meeting members or selectmen are calling to spend the money.  

In New Bedford, however, protesters that came out after George Floyd’s death, they demanded that police wear cameras in the city.

As a result, the chief of police, the police union president, and other city officials have recently come out in favor of body cameras.  

Police chiefs say it’s really a matter of time before their officers use the cameras, whether from local pressure, or a mandate from the state.