Time to get fully on board with police body cameras

Current Mass. law doesn’t allow audio recording

TAMIR RICE. MICHAEL BROWN. WALTER SCOTT. These are just some of the high profile police-involved shootings that caught the nation’s attention and highlighted some of the more extreme interactions between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect. People were outraged over the outcomes of these interactions and the subsequent legal proceedings. Others were equally upset about how little we knew about what happened during these events. Even when we do have some video evidence – the recent news-helicopter video of New Hampshire police beating a car chase suspect is a good example – it’s often unclear whether the interaction would have been different if police were wearing body cameras. The lack of accountability and the search for the truth instinctively brings the conversation to how we can better understand interactions between law enforcement and the public. One tool that has been effective in evaluating such situations is the use of police-worn body cameras.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country that does not explicitly allow the recording of audio with police body cameras. This stems from the state’s two-party consent law prohibiting the recording of audio without permission. There are several other states that also have two-party consent laws, but they all have an exception for the use of police body cameras. Our state is a national leader on new technology and innovative ideas, yet we are letting law enforcement and our communities fall behind by prohibiting our police departments from fully using this new tool. Our state law allows the recording of video, but not audio, which is worrisome because the law is only allowing for half the story to be told. Why is Massachusetts the lone holdout?

There have been several pieces of legislation that have tried to get an exception to the state law so that police can use body cameras, but each piece of legislation has failed to pass. Why? There is already broad support for legislation amongst the Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs. And the Massachusetts State Police and MBTA Police support the use of body cameras. Yet legislators have been reluctant the make an exception to state law.

Not having this exception is actually hurting our communities. There is mistrust on both sides of the issue, particularly in minority communities.  Not having a better way to document interactions is only exacerbating the problem. While there are certainly other ways to improve community/police relations – increased dialogue, better training, a more robust process for investigating citizen complaints – body cameras allow for accountability on both sides and get us closer to the truth. And we should not look past the fact that body cameras are an added tool that helps law enforcement gather evidence directly at the point of an interaction, rather than mainly relying on information from third parties that may not have been at the scene.

Studies have shown that both law enforcement and members of the public behave better within the presence of police-worn body cameras. Body cameras have a proven effect in improving relations with law enforcement and the community:

  • Mesa, Arizona, deployment of body cameras reduced citizen complaints by 40 percent and use of force by 75 percent;
  • Birmingham, Alabama, reduced complaints by 70 percednt and use of force by 34 percent;
  • San Diego, California, reduced complaints by 41 percent and use of force 47 percent;
  • Orlando, Florida, reduced complaints by 65.4 percent and use of force by 53.4 percent;
  • Rialto, California, reduced complaints by 88 percent and use of force by 59 percent.
Meet the Author

Horace Small

Executive director, Union of Minority Neighborhoods
The evidence is hard to ignore. And it should stand as a glaring omission that Massachusetts chooses to stand behind while other places around the country are a taking a serious step forward to address this matter.

Horace Small is founder and executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods.