PITTSFIELD — After months of community pressure, the Pittsfield Police Department is on the brink of deploying a body camera pilot program with eight officers.
Chief Michael Wynn says the department has overcome legal questions about use of body cameras, come to agreements with police unions and is now testing devices.
That’s the summary Wynn provided in a letter to the City Council. Wynn is set to come before the council tonight with an update on the department’s progress in purchasing body cameras in response to a petition from Councilor Patrick Kavey.
The chief writes in the letter the department “has undertaken a systematic process to implement the use of Body Worn Cameras (BWCs) by Pittsfield Police officers” since March.
City councilors and residents have asked for years why the department doesn’t equip officers with body cameras.
In March, a Pittsfield officer shot and killed Miguel Estrella. The only video evidence of Estrella’s killing came from grainy surveillance video from a nearby business.
Since Estrella’s death, questions about why the department has no cameras and calls for a change have reignited.
A timeline included in Wynn’s letter shows that between March 29 and June 21 the department met with three body camera companies: Watchguard, which is owned by Motorola; BodyWorn, which is owned by Utility; and Axon.
After meetings with company representatives and product reviews, Wynn says the department decided to go forward with a training and evaluation period with BodyWorn and Axon after WatchGuard was “dropped from consideration due to lack of vendor responsiveness, comparable data storage cost, and negative reviews.”
The department worked out a temporary body camera policy with patrol unions between August and early October. Last week, a group of eight officers signed on to serve as the initial pilot group for the cameras and on October 15 received initial training.
Wynn writes in his Thursday letter to the council that the Axon body camera testing phase is “tentatively scheduled to begin in the next four days.”
The pilot program puts the Pittsfield Police Department one step closer to joining the group of more than 100 departments across the state using body cameras. Among this group are the Great Barrington and Sheffield police departments.
Great Barrington started using Axon body cameras in late September, becoming the first local department in Berkshire County to equip officers with cameras. The department paid $59,000 for the cameras and five years of video storage for its 22 officers.
Earlier legal questions
Wynn told the council shortly after Estrella’s March shooting that he was in favor of cameras generally, but didn’t think the technology was allowed under the state’s wiretapping laws.
“Neither I nor, as far as I know, any member of our police department has any opposition to implementing a body camera program in the city of Pittsfield,” Wynn said at a council meeting in May. “We do have considerable concern about how to properly do it within the legal framework we find in the commonwealth.”
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said the department's met regularly with a handful of body camera vendors, but he and the department haven't purchased cameras because they haven't resolved what he sees as major legal issues around using the technology in the state.
At the time, Wynn questioned whether having officers record interactions with the public was at odds with the state’s wiretapping statute, which requires two-party consent to audio recordings.
The chief told The Berkshire Eagle in May that after a conversation with the attorney for the Massachusetts Association of Police Chiefs, his concerns had been quieted. Wynn said the attorney told him that if police record their interaction with a person and they continue to speak after being notified about the use of a body camera, that sequence provides consent.
That reading of state law is mirrored in new policy recommendations published by the state’s Law Enforcement Body Worn Camera Task Force — the body commissioned with sorting through law enforcement and citizens’ concerns over body cameras.
The policy recommendations, published in early August, suggest officers should use body cameras to record “whenever a user interacts with a member of the public” but also that officers should create a notation on any recording that “captures a conversation with a person whose request to de-active the BWC was declined.”
Editor's note: This article has been corrected to state that Pittsfield City Councilor Patrick Kavey submitted the petition prompting Chief Michael Wynn's status report on the body-worn cameras.