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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Good to see Pittsfield Police bodycam proposal gain traction — city should get it done as soon as possible

Chief Wynn Body Cameras.jpg (copy)

During a recent Pittsfield City Council meeting, Police Chief Michael Wynn tells At-Large City Councilor Karen Kalinowsky that if the city already had the funding lined up — and a body camera use policy — it would still likely be midsummer before the cameras could make their way to the department.

The push to equip Pittsfield Police officers with body cameras is gaining traction — better late than never. We have urged all Berkshire County departments to pursue this commonsense measure toward accountability, but the fatal police shooting of Miguel Estrella and the resultant heated debate on policing in the Pittsfield community particularly underscores its necessity in this city.

As evidenced by a citizens petition calling for bodycams on all PPD officers and dashcams on all cruisers, scores of community members agree. So do city councilors, who voted unanimously to support that policy and recommend it to the mayor and the chief of police.

Chief Michael Wynn has expressed some reluctance based on legal concerns he raised regarding the state’s wiretapping laws, although that was no obstacle to the more than 100 local departments and state police across Massachusetts already employing officer-worn bodycams. Indeed, the state has helped to fund many forces’ adoption of “mandatory wear” body camera policies through grants from the Executive Office of Public Safety.

We are happy to see that, despite that initial reluctance, Chief Wynn appears to be moving to make such a policy a reality for the PPD. He told the City Council last week that the department will begin developing its implementation plan and file an application for the state grant, a key external funding mechanism that hopefully will blunt the blow to the department’s budget and in turn taxpayers. While it will produce some costs for the city, this is a public safety investment that is well worth making and long overdue. The controversy surrounding Mr. Estrella’s death tragically highlights the damage uncertainty wreaks in the wake of high-profile police killings, especially those involving mental health crises, vulnerable communities already high in distrust and conflicting eyewitness accounts of complex situations.

An independent report on Mr. Estrella’s death is still pending. As we have stressed before, we will not prejudge that investigation, and we urge others also to refrain from unnecessarily turning up the heat on an already sad situation before all the facts are available. What’s clear, though, is that more relevant evidence would be more readily available already if the officers that arrived on Onota Street on that fateful night were wearing body cameras. While we can’t change the past, Pittsfield must move with purpose in the present to ensure that when similar scenes inevitably unfold in the future the public and investigators will at least have a better and more informed view.

Some officers might bristle at more scrutiny, but police are lethally armed public safety agents sworn to serve and protect everyone equally. Seeing precisely how they perform that duty is the public’s prerogative. Further, body cameras are meant to capture unbiased truth, which means they are able to exonerate officers who act appropriately in tough situations just as they can hold accountable those who abuse their power.

Fortunately, Chief Wynn seems willing to adopt that additional layer of accountability for Pittsfield Police. While the Executive Office of Public Safety grants are helpful, the state can do more to help facilitate the adoption of bodycams without spending another dime. More than a year ago, landmark criminal justice reform legislation created a task force to develop regulations and guidance to help law enforcement agencies with everything from the procurement of cameras to training and privacy protections. The task force missed its deadline for developing those guidelines, which are still not yet available. If they were, they’d likely be helpful for forces like Pittsfield’s that are generally in favor of adopting bodycams but have questions and concerns.

The state task force should get on with it to make this process easier and clearer for department across the commonwealth. Still, Pittsfield shouldn’t hold its breath on this important policy with demonstrated community and official support. It’s good to see these serious steps toward equipping all Pittsfield Police officers with body cameras. The final steps toward implementation should be taken sooner rather than later — and hopefully Pittsfield proves a leader for more departments across the county.

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