Sunday, July 14, 2024

Motorola is one of the companies that responded to a Cambridge call for information about police body cameras. (Photo: Motorola)

Cambridge is one step closer to equipping police with body cameras after the City Council approved a report on privacy and other impacts of the technology Monday. Police can go ahead with tryouts of body camera systems proposed by two vendors that answered a request for information from the city last spring. The two companies, who were selected from nine firms that submitted responses, have not been named.

The report said “anticipated deployment” of the cameras could occur early next year “depending on procurement of the hardware, software and training officers on the new technology,” hardly a firm date. The amount the city might pay the successful vendor would range from $1.6 million to $2.3 million for 300 cameras for five years, based on quotes from the two vendors, the report said.

That doesn’t include costs to the city to hire three additional civilian officers to help staff a new unit of four to seven full-time employees that would review, monitor and redact data from body camera recordings, it said. The city would also have to pay additional “administrative costs” to deal with training, providing evidence in court and requests to release data, the report said. There would also be a price for information technology and electric “infrastructure costs” such as cabling, power and networking, it said. No estimates of the costs unrelated to vendors were provided.

Councillors’ questions revolved around how the public would get access to body camera recordings and how officials could ensure that officers didn’t turn off the cameras or fail to upload data to the police department’s online evidence management system.

“Are we creating policies around what is going to happen if an officer voluntarily turns off their camera, is that going to be an immediate investigation?” councillor Marc McGovern asked. “What are we going to do about that? Because we certainly don’t want that happening.”

McGovern cited the fatal police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal almost a year ago and the judicial inquest that found that officer Liam McMahon was justified. “If they had found that the officer had committed a crime, there would be people saying no, he didn’t. And there are people who don’t believe the current investigation,” he said. “We would have more information If there were cameras, right?”

Automated and remote operation

Councillor Quinton Zondervan asked how the department would guarantee that police send camera data to the online system and that the records are used.

The Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd “was actually putting his knee on people’s necks for years before he killed George Floyd, and nothing was done about that,” he said.  “I hope that as this goes forward, that you really focus on implementing those accountability procedures and making sure that the data is available, that it is downloaded and that it’s not being used to tell a different story and to ultimately exonerate the officer if they did something wrong.”

Police commissioner Christine Elow said: “We want to make sure that we’re giving officers very clear and specific direction about when it gets turned off when it doesn’t,” adding that the department is negotiating that issue with police unions. As for failure to upload data, police superintendent Frederic Cabral said the cameras have a large memory that can’t be erased, “so there will be an opportunity to keep that data.”

A number of vendors who answered the city’s request for information said their systems could turn on cameras automatically in certain situations, could be remotely activated and that data could be sent automatically to the online system.

The report to the council on body cameras said the cameras would turn on automatically in only one situation – when an officer drew his or her gun – and that officers would upload the data. Asked why the report didn’t mention the other options proposed by vendors, police spokesperson Robert Goulston said the department hasn’t finalized a policy. It is looking at what other departments such as Boston do and reviewing information from a state body camera task force, he said.

Becoming public record

As for public access, councillor Patty Nolan said “one way to ensure accountability” was to provide that anyone involved an “an incident” with police could see body camera data if they want. City solicitor Megan Bayer said the recordings would be subject to the state public records law, though,. which exempts some records from disclosure.

All or parts of the videos might be withheld, she said. The camera systems might allow officials to “cut out parts of the videos or change phrases or blur people,” she said. In some cases the entire video might be withheld, she said.

That didn’t satisfy Nolan, who said: “I think it’s critical for talking about accountability and transparency to ensure that those people involved will have access to it.”

The exemptions to the public records law can be broad. For example, the city refused a Cambridge Day request for police incident reports and use-of-force reports related to the arrests of nine protesters at an Oct. 30 demonstration aimed at the Cambridge office of Israeli military contractor Elbit Systems. The exemption cited was one that withholds records related to an ongoing investigation, even though guidance from the secretary of the state says the exemption is about material that “could alert suspects to the activities of investigative officials.”

Elow promised to return to the council once the department establishes a policy that governs the cameras. “This has to be a process where we’re engaged not only with our council, but with our community,” she said.