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Worcester, Mass., PD Voices Support for Body Cameras

Following a six-month pilot program with the body-worn cameras, officers with the Worcester Police Department are pushing for permanent adoption of the technology saying it increases transparency and public trust.

by Michael Bonner, / August 12, 2020

(TNS) — Weeks after the Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent filed a report on the pilot program involving officers wearing body cameras, it finally made it was to the Committee on Public Safety on Tuesday night.

While the department provided details on the six-month pilot program, which began in May of 2019, the committee delayed public comments until Monday due to time constraints.

During the department’s presentation, Sargent called the program “a great program” and one that protects both police officers and the community, despite its cost of about $11 million over five years.

While public comments were temporary held on Tuesday, residents spoke on the program during a city council meeting on July 21. For an hour during the July meeting, they made the case against implementing a body camera program and the council eventually voted to have further discussion on the item.

“Anyone watching the Public Safety Subcommittee tonight could be excused for wondering what the purpose of a democratic government is if elected officials ignore research, hours of public comment, hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls from constituents and their established rules of order,” Defund WPD said in a statement regarding Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilor-at-Large Donna Colorio directly responded to criticism of the program by clarifying with Sargent that the program was initially introduced not to change the police department but to provide better transparency.

Sargent concurred saying the program wasn’t to alter their practices.

“The majority of the police officers in Worcester are doing a great job,” Colorio said. “In any profession you’ve got one or two people that shouldn’t be in the profession, but on the whole, the Worcester police has done a great job and [Chief Sargent] has done a great job. This was to help the community and the transparency issue.”

Sargent said he continues to remain proud of his department even amid times where it is difficult to be a police officer.

“We’re in some trying times now,” Sargent said. “It’s a tough time to be a police officer but the men and women of the Worcester Police Department, they go out every single day and do their job. They work hard. They want to engage the community, they want to be a part of the community. It’s trying times. It’s a difficult time in policing but moral is good.”

Tuesday night, the Worcester Police Department largely supported the program. The most underrated aspect of the program, the department said, was the use in training. The presence of the cameras also occasionally calmed citizens, which helped in deescalating situations, police said. The cameras can be used to resolve citizen complaints, but the department said they didn’t receive any complaints during the program.

The pilot program in Worcester launched in May 2019 and involved 20 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 body cameras to the department, which the department called the gold standard in the industry. The department said Axon provides body cameras to about 70% of the departments in the country that use the technology.

Worcester police also discussed several negatives associated with program, but Lt. Sean Murtha said none were issues that would prevent it from moving forward.

The program would lead to more public records. The videos would have to be edited for public consumption, taking more time and cost.

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 report said.

Officers felt pressure to have the demeanor as if they were testifying in court, which has the potential to hurt the ability for officers to enjoy working and reduce community engagement, the department said.

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.

©2020, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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