Cambridge Councilors Want to Discuss Use of Body Cameras on Police Officers

They join a growing list of municipal leaders that believe having the devices strapped to officers' chests could help clear up discrepancies.

Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung is looking to round up people from the community to have a serious conversation about the idea of equipping on-duty police with body cameras, an idea that has been cropping up in more municipalities across the country in the wake of two grand juries’ decisions not to indict white officers for the shooting deaths of unarmed black men.

“I’m currently working with some people from the community, from the [Harvard] law school, and others engaged in the recent peaceful protests in Cambridge to start having some discussions about all the technical details and about the specifics,” said Cheung.

Last week, Cheung sent out an email to fellow councilors asking them to keep the idea on their radar. When sending out the message, however, he accidentally included the City Clerk on the email.

A policy order to request that City Manager Richard Rossi “initiate a program to deploy body cameras for police” ended up on Monday night’s list of topics to discuss, but after realizing that more research needs to be done about how the devices work, and how residents feel about the technological upgrades, it was tabled for the time being.

“This is an interesting question, but there seems to be a lot of mixed opinions about it. So this can be done correctly, or it can be done incorrectly,” said Cheung. “So we won’t be discussing this tonight.”

Citing the importance of the public’s interest in police body cameras, Cheung said he hopes to get residents together with other stakeholders for a hearing sometime in the New Year.

“Depending on what type of policy is in place, body cameras can either build trust in the community, or dismantle it,” he said. “There are questions about when they are on and when are they off, if police should be wearing them inside the station, or when trying to solicit anonymous tips. It also goes along with what the training grounds for cameras should look like.”

Cambridge Police, who responded to the massive protests that took over the streets in Harvard Square, Central Square, and near the entrance of the Mass. Ave. bridge recently, which were ignited by the lack of indictments in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, said “their take” is that there are a “lot of layers” involved when considering a new venture like body cameras, one that requires in-depth conversations.

“There’s a lot involved in it, especially with the privacy for both parties. And it’s something we would have to work through with the union,” said Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for the department. “We are trying to observes what’s going on nationally, and learn lessons from that before we further consider the implementation [of body cameras]. We are taking a look at it from the outside to see how other departments are handling it, and what their best practices are, what the challenges have been for those departments, and how they have addressed those challenges.”

Cambridge Police and City Councilors will likely keep an eye on major departments like the New York City police, who recently equipped a select few officers with body cameras as part of a pilot program.

Although the discussion in Cambridge is still in the preliminary stages, Cheung has found early support from Councilor Nadeem Mazen.

Mazen said Monday, under the assumption that the policy order would be on the table for the night’s meeting, that he supported the initiative. “I think the number of police complaints—research shows both with government transparency and police action in general, when being watched you behave differently,” he said.

Mazen said he realizes there will be some “pushback” on the idea, but that most of the arguments he has heard have been “weak.”

“There is some pushback, but people recognize the need for this,” he said. “The main objection is that it’s an inconvenience, or that it wouldn’t be fair for police. Yes, you’re being inconvenienced, but it serves the public.”

Cambridge isn’t the only city talking about the use of body cameras.

In Boston, an independent group dedicated to bringing more accountability to the department, amidst racial tensions and protests, has been ramping up their efforts to require police to have the devices strapped to their uniforms. Other departments across the state have either voiced concerns about the use of cameras, or strongly supported this type of policing, according to a recent Boston Globe article.