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Pittsfield Police say they've 'hit pause' on body camera pilot program amid union concerns

body camera on pocket of police uniform

A Great Barrington police officer wears an Axon body camera on his uniform at the station in September. The Pittsfield Police Department's proposed body camera program remains paused over what appear to be contract disputes from the supervisors union.

PITTSFIELD — A pilot program that could pave the way for Pittsfield’s Police Department to use body-worn cameras is on pause after what department leadership described as “concerns” from the department’s unions.

City councilors were prepared Tuesday evening to receive an update from Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn about what many thought would be the start of a long-awaited body camera pilot program.

Wynn sent a letter to the council Thursday, in response to a petition by Councilor Patrick Kavey, providing a timeline of months of work to develop the pilot program.

Instead, Police Capt. Gary Traversa came before the council and said a set of “fairly recent delays” that had caused the department to “hit the pause button” on launching the pilot program over the last 10 days.

Traversa said that it was “not for me to discuss” what about the technology, training or other elements surrounding the department’s exploration of body cameras had triggered concerns from the unions.

When asked directly by Councilor Ken Warren whether the concerns came from the temporary body camera policy accepted by the department — according to Wynn’s letter — on Oct. 3, Traversa said simply “no.”

Traversa did not specify whether the concerns originated with the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 447, which represents the patrol officers, or the Local 447s, which represents police supervisors.

Mayor Linda Tyer said that she was aware of the issues raised by the union but couldn’t speak to them in detail. Tyer said the timeframe for getting the department cameras remained “as soon as possible.”

“I think there were some issues raised this week that the union needs to work through and won’t be able to move forward until those are settled,” Tyer said.

Officer address council members

Pittsfield Police Capt. Gary Traversa told the Pittsfield City Council on Tuesday evening that the department had "hit pause" on a body camera pilot program that had been expected to launch this week after members of the police union raised "concerns." He did not expand on what about the program prompted the concerns.

Traversa said that once the union concerns with the pilot program are settled, the department would plan on testing cameras from two vendors — BodyWorn and Axon — for six to eight weeks. The department would then make a decision on which company it preferred and then begin talks about drafting a contract and buying cameras for 90 personnel within the department.

“Our hope was to have a vendor chosen by the end of the year; it’s our understanding that prices go up at that point so we were hoping to have a contract signed,” Traversa said. “However we really haven’t — at least on our side of the street — taken that much of a dive into the procurement process.”

Councilor Kevin Sherman urged the department to begin talking with BodyWorn and Axon about purchase costs. “My concern is that the delays are going to keep stacking up,” he said.

City councilors and residents have asked the department for years why officers didn’t have body cameras, even as municipalities across the state were lining up to apply for state and federal funding to adopt the technology.

Those questions reached a new pitch when in March, a Pittsfield officer shot and killed 22-year-old Miguel Estrella. The only video evidence of Estrella’s killing came from grainy surveillance video from a nearby business.

For months, residents have signed on to city petitions and taken their place before the open microphone portion of council meetings to push the city to make progress in equipping officers with cameras.

Wynn’s letter, in which he writes the department “has undertaken a systematic process to implement the use of Body Worn Cameras (BWCs) by Pittsfield Police officers” since March, was seen as a response to these pleas and a sign of forward momentum on the camera program.

Councilor Earl Persip III asked the mayor whether the city had funding in place for the cameras once the union issues are resolved and the pilot program ends. Tyer said “not yet.” The mayor said that the city has applied for a state grant for body-worn cameras.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety said in August that $2.5 million in grant money would be available to law enforcement agencies looking to start or expand a body-worn camera program in fiscal 2023. State leaders said in December that the grant program is set to award $20 million over a five-year period.

Great Barrington and Sheffield police departments were recent local recipients from that program, receiving about $19,000 and $30,000, respectively, to get their own body camera programs off the ground.

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.

Tyer said that even with the grant application pending, “at some point I’m going to have to come forward with a request for an appropriation; we’re just not there yet.” The mayor said she couldn’t provide the council with an estimate of how big a money ask that would be because “it depends on the technology we choose.”

Persip urged the mayor to return at the next council meeting on Nov. 15 with some kind of appropriation request to get the pilot program back on track. The council unanimously voted to table Kavey’s petition and have the mayor and Chief Wynn return at the next meeting with another update.

“The community has waited a long time for this; we’ve heard the outcry for this,” Persip said. “The factors of the delay, I’ve got to say, I’m disappointed. I thought we had our ducks in a row.”

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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