Grant offers Massachusetts police departments opportunity to test body cameras

By Brendan Deady

(Daily Collegian/Daniel Maldonado)
Writer Brendan Deady sits down with State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. (Daily Collegian/Daniel Maldonado)

The killing of Michael Brown in August of 2014 ignited a national conversation about police accountability and set in motion demands for a system that documents interactions between officers and citizens. The ambiguity surrounding Brown’s death led to a call for officers to don body cameras to prevent uncertainty in cases where complications or allegations of abuse arise.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has said that he’s interested in exploring the use of body cameras but is not at the stage of penning legislation that would establish a statewide mandate without a proper framework to govern usage.

Now, with a supplemental budget passed in October 2015, police departments across the state will have an opportunity to acquire body cameras and run their own pilot programs.

The $275,000 grant, which was made available last week through the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, is the brainchild of State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and his staff.

The grant makes funds available for four police departments to acquire body cameras and establish their own policies governing the technology’s usage. Rosenberg sat down with the Daily Collegian to discuss the logistics of the grant and what he hopes it will help accomplish.

Rosenberg decided in August to draft a grant program after seeing the frequent incidents between police officers and individuals in the media that resulted in conversations of accountability and transparency. He’d heard that other communities were testing out body camera programs and felt that Massachusetts should be proactive rather than wait for an incident to force action on the subject.

“It ought to be more regularized and regulated activity so it’s fair to both the individual police officer and also the individual involved,” Rosenberg said. “So I said, ‘Let’s set up a program to collect data to assess what are the best standards, practices, rules and regulations’ because eventually people are going to want real legislation, and so we want it to be guided by real experience.”

Rosenberg’s staff sent out notice that the funds were available for application last week and so far the EOPSS has not received any inquiries. The $275,000 is set aside for four police departments – two within larger cities and two within smaller rural areas – in order to gather a “diversity of experience because (any future) policy would apply across the (state) so we need to see how these things play out in different types of communities,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg said the amount he submitted as part of the $341.7 million supplemental budget approved in October wasn’t informed by other departments’ experience with cost, but was just a number that seemed agreeable enough.

“It was well below a million, whatever it was we wanted enough money to fund a number of projects so that we could have experiences to compare,” he said.

Rosenberg said he did not devise the grant in response to public pressure, but did take input from the American Civil Liberties Union when drafting the language to make sure the program would be balanced and fair. He said the approval process was remarkably smooth because it was a modest amount of money and because his fellow legislators “understood, seeing the situations that have unfolded, that it was something worth piloting.”

Rosenberg said that the grant does not have an established framework of rules or regulations that recipients of funds would have to abide by. Instead, departments will put their own programs together and the EOPSS will review their practices and draw from their experiences to draft guidelines for future programs.

Applicants must have a written “mandatory wear” policy for the body cameras and receive a signature from the head governing body within their town that signs off on the application submission.

If approved, departments would be responsible for all the logistics of technology acquisition, training, policy development and implementation while the EOPSS acts as an overseer.

Rosenberg said that in the future if the demand for a statewide mandate develops, the experience of the departments funded by the grant will act as a tool of reference.

He refrained from describing the program as a trial and error initiative, but acknowledged that it was designed to be experimental in nature in order to learn which policies do and don’t work. He added that the pilot programs would help provide answers to the many unprecedented questions that he expects to arise concerning body cameras.

“It’s all going to be addressed over time and we would expect that many questions will arise at the local level as people are implementing their programs and collecting info … As we watch clashes with police happen mostly in other states, it’s important that we’re ahead of the problem,” Rosenberg said.

When asked whether he’d like to see the Amherst Police Department apply for the grant, Rosenberg responded that “he’d like to see any community that has the willingness to step up to the plate to do it, so sure why not.”

Amherst Chief of Police Scott Livingstone could not be reached for comment as of Sunday night.

Brendan Deady can be reached [email protected] or followed on Twitter @bdeady26.