Police body cameras are coming

Segun Idowu weighs in on The Codcast

It’s been a long march for the Boston Police Camera Action Team, but nearly four years after the community-based group set out to push Boston police to have officers deployed with body-worn cameras it looks like victory is in sight.


In recent days, Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner Bill Evans have both signaled that body cameras are coming to Boston.

“We are happy that the mayor is listening the majority of Bostonians now,” says Segun Idowu, a cofounder of the group, on this week’s Codcast.

Walsh has hardly been a consistent backer of the idea. In a 2017 campaign debate, he pointed to a recent study in Washington, DC, raising questions about the benefits of body cameras, and as recently as January he said he was “not convinced yet” of their benefits.

But Walsh is now apparently on board with the idea. “I think the mayor realizes the positive benefits to this, I know I do,” Evans told a City Council subcommittee last month.

The biggest practical hurdle now is funding, with police estimating it will cost $5 million to $7 million to equip officers with cameras and launch the program.

A pilot study among Boston police showed modest reduction in citizen complaints about police behavior associated with use of cameras, though it found no link to the incidence of police use of force in encounters with civilians.

The Boston group pushing for body cameras was formed four days after the 2014 “death, or murder, I would say, of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri,” says Idowu. He and co-founder Shakia Scott initially considered going to Ferguson to lend support to protests there, Idowu says, but then concluded a better use of their energy would be to focus on Boston “to prevent a Michael Brown from being shot and killed on Warren Street.”

Eschewing street protests in favor of lobbying and advocacy, Idowu says the Boston Police Camera Action Team viewed itself as “the policy wing of the Black Lives Matter movement here in Boston.”

The main Boston patrol officers’ union waged an unsuccessful legal effort to block the body-camera pilot study, and the union president didn’t return a call from CommonWealth last week inviting him to join Idowu for a conversation on the issue. But Idowu says he and members of his group had lots of conversations with Boston police officers over the past several years and found that they were almost universally in favor of body cameras.

“I cannot think of an officer that we spoke to that did not want the camera,” he says. “If anything, several officers said to us they are suspect of officers who don’t want body cameras because it would indicate that they may be doing something bad.”

Civilians wanted cameras “in response to what we were seeing around the country: young black men being shot and killed by police officers,” says Idowu. “For officers here in Boston, it is entirely their perspective that they do a lot of great work, which is true, and that they are sometimes attacked verbally or viciously by those they are trying to protect and they want cameras to show the restraint that they show in dealing with people.”

That makes it sound like a policy where truth is the ultimate victor. A recent Boston Globe story underscored this point, citing disputes in recent cases in which cameras provided support for accounts offered by both civilians and police.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

There are important details of Boston’s body camera policy still to be worked out. One critical issue will be the policy related to failure to activate a camera in a setting where it should be on, or turning off or muting cameras, as happened last month in the moments after cameras captured the police killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man in Sacramento, California.

“Misuse or abuse of body cameras” without consequences for officers “completely negatives the purpose of having them to begin with,” says Idowu. “The whole purpose of body cameras was to establish transparency and accountability.”