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Slow to adapt: Why so few Mass. police departments use dash, body cameras

BOSTON — If news helicopters hadn't been hovering over Nashua, New Hampshire three years ago, attorney Joe Comenzo said there would have been no video of police beating his unarmed client.

“It was the most important piece of evidence that allowed us to proceed [with civil action]” Comenzo said.

Richard Simone led police on a high-speed chase from Holden to Nashua in May 2016.

News cameras high above recorded troopers beating the Worcester man as soon as he exited his truck and surrendered.

“I think it was the reason the troopers were charged criminally, was the helicopter footage,” Comezno said.

One trooper resigned, another was suspended and later found not guilty of criminal charges. Last month, Comenzo filed a $6 million federal lawsuit, arguing the troopers violated Simone’s constitutional rights.

At the time, the incident emphasized the importance of video evidence and renewed calls for more police to arm themselves with cameras.

But three years later, law enforcement is still slow to adapt to video.

Boston 25 News gathered information from more than 150 Massachusetts towns and cities.

We found a small fraction of police departments are using video out on the streets.

Sixteen have cruiser dash cameras:

  • Ashburnham- 4 cars
  • Bedford- 8 cars
  • Gill- 2 cars
  • Hingham- 8 cars
  • Nantucket- 8 cars
  • Brewster- 5 cars
  • Pelham- 2 cars
  • Oxford- 8 cars
  • Norwell- 7 cars
  • Ipswich- 5 cars
  • Hopkinton- 7 cars
  • Rutland- 1 out of 7 cars
  • Wayland- 6 cars
  • West Brookfield- 2 cars
  • Westminster- 6 cars
  • Webster- 6 cars


Seven use officer body cameras:

  • Boston Police
  • Ipswich (*Editorial Note: Ipswich was previously omitted from this list, which is why the map below indicates 7 PDs with body cams instead of 8)
  • Lakeville
  • Massachusetts State Police (pilot program)
  • Methuen
  • Sherborn
  • West Brookfield
  • Worcester Police (pilot program)

Massachusetts State Police and Worcester Police launched body camera pilot programs earlier this year.

Boston Police is slowly introducing body cameras to its officers after running a pilot program in 2017.

But although they pull over thousands of drivers every year, no one from State Police, Worcester or Boston police has cameras in their cars.

Boston 25 News found the 16 police departments that do have cruisers cameras are among the smallest communities in Massachusetts.

TOO EXPENSIVE? 

Several chiefs said cameras are budget killers.

“I think more would [have them] if it wasn’t so expensive,” Blackstone Police Chief Ross Atstupenas, said.

Dudley Police Chief Steve Wojnar said his department abandoned the technology decades ago.

“We were one of the first in our area back in the 90s with dash cameras,” Wojnar said. “However, once grant money ran out, it was not cost effective for our smaller agency to maintain.”

Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael said the dash cameras are “very effective,” but too difficult to maintain.

“The cost to maintain the database, the hours of work to sustain compliance and discovery for court became too much so we discontinued them. It’s a full-time job,” Carmichael said.

Chelsea Chief Brian Kyes is the president of Mass Major City Chiefs.

Kyes said body cameras are effective in lowering the number of complaints against a police officer and reducing the number of “use of force” incidents.

But the major hurdle is still cost.

“The concern for many police chiefs and municipal managers in the recurring annual cost to maintain the recorded data,” Kyes wrote in an email to Boston 25 News.

According to Kyes, the cost could be anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 every year.

“All that said, if the residents…are advocating for the use of these cameras…then the local governments and police chiefs should do everything they possibly can to secure them within the constraints of their existing local budgets,” Kyes wrote.

SMALL TOWNS USING VIDEO 

But other small towns are finding a way.

“The costs have come way down,” Westminster Police Chief Michael McDonald said. “In the big picture, it’s a tiny percentage. I think the return on it is priceless.”

The Westminster Police Department, which covers around 7,500 residents, started using dash cameras in the mid-90s.

McDonald said his budget is around $2.1 million. The cameras cost $6,000 every six years, and the server costs a few thousand a year, a small percentage of his overall expenses.

“It’s just another set of eyes to protect the officers,” McDonald said.

SLOW TO ADAPT 

If it’s not the cost, what is it? Some critics blame the police unions for resisting the technology.

“I think the police officers don’t want it,” defense attorney Michael DelSignore said. “I think it’s just [officers] don’t want the constant oversight and second-guessing of every decision they make.”

DelSignore said many of his clients are surprised when they find out there is no video of their encounter with police.

“Most of my clients, most average citizens believe everything is recorded and that’s not the case,” DelSignore said.

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, State Police Association of Massachusetts and New England Police Benevolent Association did not respond to a Boston 25 News request for comment.

“I’ve heard some pushback from the unions,” McDonald said. “They call it a change in working conditions when it’s a union issue. I suppose it does change a little bit of the daily routine,” he said.

“But most departments that end up bargaining it with the union, if you would ask somebody a year or two later, it’s really not a big change in what you’re doing,” McDonald said.

PROTECTING YOUR RIGHTS 

“Video evidence can be a very powerful tool to help exonerate people,” Rahsaan Hall, a Boston civil rights attorney, said.

Hall is the director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

“Part of measuring what police are doing is the ability to view their interactions with people in the community,” Hall said. “There may be push back from police unions to the extent there is concern around the level of transparency and accountability.”

DelSignore said when there is video evidence in a criminal case, he can use it to a client’s advantage.

“I’ve had cases where I’ve seen an officer demonstrate the test wrong. Some of them may explain the test too quickly,” DelSignore said.

“The video is going to show the truth of exactly what happened, and I think it’s good for both sides and for a fair and open process,” he said.

In an era when everyone has a camera in their pocket, McDonald said there is no downside to law enforcement having cameras out in the field.

“Most officers are out there doing the right thing. This just documents them doing the right thing,” McDonald said.

Where does your town stand with body/dash cameras? Check here.

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