Oct 28 2013

Why are the Massachusetts State Police camera shy?

Dr. Q

On October 11, a Massachusetts state trooper shot two unarmed men at a traffic stop in Medford. The state police have claimed that the trooper feared for his life and was forced to shoot when the driver, a 19-year-old man, attempted to hit the state trooper with his vehicle. The driver has been charged with numerous crimes including assault with a dangerous weapon. The passenger, who was also shot, has not been accused of doing anything wrong — nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So far, the only evidence presented to the public that either of the shooting victims did anything wrong is the word of the very state trooper who shot them. Personally I don’t think that’s good enough. When a police officer shoots someone, we deserve real evidence that the shooting was justified.

There’s a very simple measure that the Massachusetts State Police can take to assure the public that they are justified when they shoot: they can go on camera.

Many police departments use video cameras to bring more transparency to their actions. One type of camera that police departments use is the dashboard-camera (or dashcam). These cameras are mounted in a police cruiser. They can be used to examine why a police officer pulled someone over and what happened during the traffic stop.

A dashcam would have been perfect for recording the police shooting in Medford. A dashcam also could have been used to record another recent incident during which a state trooper shot a mentally ill man to death after the man allegedly tried to kill the trooper with a pen.

Dashcams are not a new technology. They have been in use for decades. After the infamous 1991 Rodney King beating — an incident that was only brought to the public’s attention because a bystander video-recorded it — the Christopher Commission, a blue ribbon commission appointed by the mayor, recommended that the Los Angeles Police Department begin using dashcams. The Christopher Commission wrote that dashcams offered “A promising possibility for reducing excessive force and assisting the LAPD and the City in defending civil litigation.” The use of dashcams would likely reduce excessive force claims “because the tapes demonstrate that the officer acted appropriately and because officers would be more careful to use force appropriately.” The Commission suggested that the cameras might even pay for themselves by reducing the number of lawsuits against the LAPD.

Since the Christopher Commission wrote its report over two decades ago, dashcam use by police has become much more common, although it is still not universal. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 61% of local police departments and 67% of sheriff’s departments used dashcams in 2007.

A more recent and very promising idea is having police attach wearable cameras to their clothing (I’ve sometimes heard them called “bodycams”). In Rialto, California, police recently began using wearable cameras. “In the first year after the cameras were introduced [in Rialto] in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period,” according to The New York Times. Bodycams would be useful for recording shootings that don’t occur at traffic stops such as the recent fatal shooting of Denis Reynoso by the Lynn Police Department.

Unfortunately, the Massachusetts State Police, the largest police department in the state, still haven’t gotten with the times. I recently submitted a public records request to the Massachusetts State Police asking for any dashcam videos of the Medford shooting and any policy documents related to dashcams. Here’s what I was told:

Please be advised that no video recording was created relative to your request. Further, the Department does not utilize dash-mounted video cameras in Department vehicles. Therefore, the Department does not have policies pertaining to the use of such equipment to provide to you.

If you think the idea of requiring police to be on camera constantly is ridiculous, consider what two Dallas, Texas police officers recently did when they thought they weren’t on camera. The officers shot a mentally ill man who was just standing still then lied on their police report, saying that the man lunged at them with a knife. Thankfully, their lies were exposed when the shooting was recorded by a nearby surveillance camera.

Police are human beings, not angels. They can commit crimes and lie just like everyone else. When police shoot someone, we shouldn’t have to take the word of the police on faith.

It’s about time the Massachusetts State Police and all the other police departments in the state start going on camera.