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Body Cameras Could Carry $11M Price Tag for Worcester, Mass.

The chief of the Worcester Police Department has raised concerns about implementing a body camera program. According to a department report, the program would cost up to $11 million over the next five years.

by Scott J. Croteau, MassLive.com / July 21, 2020
Worcester, Mass.

(TNS) — Fully implementing a body camera program within the Worcester Police Department could come with a price tag as high as $11 million over five years, Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent said in a report that will go before the City Council Tuesday.

The report, written by Sargent and sent to City Manager Edward Augustus Jr., details the pilot program that began in May 2019 and ended in October 2019.

The chief calls the cameras an “effective tool to preserve factual representation of officer/civilian interactions” and are effective in “capturing video and audio evidence for use in criminal investigations, internal investigations, officer training and increasing transparency.”

He also wrote the program will require a “significant investment in training and personnel.” A unit of roughly five officers and two officials would need to be created to review the footage, the chief added.

The videos are public records which means the department would have to manage requests.

“Managing public records requests creates a significant workload for the police department, and creates the possibility of public embarrassment for officers or citizens,” Sargent wrote.

There were only three public records requests during the pilot program, the chief said.

Sargent discussed officer morale in the report. Officers in the pilot program felt less able to use discretion at times and felt more “robotic” and unable to “joke around and have fun while doing their jobs,” the chief wrote.

Officers felt pressure to have the demeanor of an officer testifying in court, which has the potential to hurt the ability for officers to enjoy working and reduce community engagement, Sargent said.

He also noted privacy concerns for citizens, possible reduction in witness cooperation especially in serious or gang-involved crimes, an impact on proactive policing, officer distraction and making officers hesitant to use force when necessary.

Sargent found the most useful application of the camera footage to be officer training. The presence of the cameras did calm citizens down in some situations. The cameras can be used to resolve citizen complaints, but Sargent noted none of the officers in the pilot program received any complaints.

A handful of videos from the pilot program, obtained by MassLive via a public records request last year, offered a glimpse into police interactions with the public.

Sargent said body-worn cameras could increase community confidence and support for the department. Dozens of residents had argued in council meetings that a fiscal 2021 budget increase for Worcester police should have gone to social services.

The attempt to cut the budget was not successful.

The Massachusetts House and Senate’s new police reform bill contains a proposal to create a task force to develop regulations into the procurement, use, and storage of body-worn cameras for officers.

Last month in Springfield, the first dozen city police and supervisors were outfitted with body-worn cameras with the department anticipating that the entire police force will be trained by the end of summer.

The ACLU of Massachusetts has said body-worn cameras “can be a useful tool in preserving evidence of police misconduct, providing greater oversight, and increasing accountability of police officers” but the proper protocols and policies need to be in place.

Calls for police accountability, defunding of police departments and reviews of the use of force have been echoed by people and groups nationwide after the deaths of Black people in officer-involved incidents.

In the report, Sargent said running the program was more time-consuming than the department expected.

Axon provided three different cost quotes that cover a 5-year period. The prices are to equip 461 police personnel positions. The quotes ranged from $4.4 million to $5.7 million over five years.

Sargent said another $811,212 per year, or roughly $4 million over five years, would be needed to fund additional personnel to run the program.

Cell phones would also be needed for all officers to run the program effectively, the chief said. That would cost $150,000 a year or $750,000 over five years.

Training, a one-time cost, comes in at $545,364.

There is no money in the police budget for a body camera program this fiscal year.

District 1 City Councilor Sean Rose filed an order for the Tuesday meeting calling for Augustus to put a police body camera program in place by Jan. 1.

The Defund WPD group believes the cost of any program would be better used for social services. In a petition filed for the meeting, Eliana Stanislawski said if a body camera program is put in place, the money needs to come from within the police department’s budget and not from any other city departments.

Worcester police officials researched the use and application of body cameras before the 6-month pilot program began last year. Officials reviewed other law enforcement agencies using body cameras.

The pilot program in Worcester launched in May 2019 and involved 22 officers, including 16 from the Operations Division, two from the Traffic Division and two from the Neighborhood Response Team. The officers volunteered to wear the cameras for their shifts. Two lieutenants and four officers were assigned to oversee the program and assess the performance of the cameras.

Axon provided 22 body cameras to the department and extras in case of malfunctions. The city did not pay Axon for any aspect of the pilot program, the chief said. Axon provided training, equipment, storage of video evidence and support.

All audio and video were uploaded at the end of an officer’s shift and all the officers were trained in the use of the cameras per department policy.

The body camera pilot program in Worcester lasted from May 1, 2019, to Oct. 31, 2019.

Once a week, sergeants would compare two random incidents within the department’s Records Management System and the Axon’s Evidence.com account. This was done to make sure officers complied with department policy as to when to activate the cameras. The videos were used, when appropriate, to review uses of force and distribute videos to officers, not in the pilot program.

The officers within the pilot program created roughly 7,707 videos with roughly 1,100 hours of recorded video, which equaled more than 4,000 Gigabytes of data.

The videos were placed in categories: use of force, arrest, reports, criminal summons/warrants, traffic stops, investigative stops, no report/code, assisting officer and training.

©2020 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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