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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Williamstown makes welcome moves toward police bodycams — what's the holdup in Pittsfield?

It’s good to see another local police department in the Berkshires is readying to adopt a relatively simple practice to prioritize transparency. Williamstown Interim Police Chief Mike Ziemba’s proposal to put body-mounted cameras on local police officers has backing from town officials. That puts this Northern Berkshire town in line with several other municipalities throughout the county embracing bodycams; Great Barrington’s force has been wearing them for more than a month, and departments in Sheffield and Stockbridge have plans to add them to the uniform as well.

Up until a few weeks ago, it seemed like the Pittsfield Police Department also was ready to equip this modern tool to ratchet up accountability in police-civilian interactions. Community members petitioned for bodycams on PPD officers. Pittsfield officials agreed with the sentiment. While Police Chief Michael Wynn initially expressed doubts about the logistics and legality of such a policy, he said his research into the matter settled his previous qualms, and informed the City Council via letter that a bodycam pilot program was ready for imminent launch.

Then, just when Chief Wynn was expected to address the City Council about the pilot’s rollout, the city’s police unions raised previously unmentioned objections to the bodycam pilot. In fact, those objections are still unmentioned, in that both the patrol officers union and police supervisors union still won’t specify exactly what are their concerns worth indefinitely delaying the pilot’s launch. One will be curious to see if the police union makes bodycams a negotiating point in contract talks.

Body cameras bring more transparency to bear on public safety agencies equipped with deadly force that require a foundation of public trust to healthily function. They give citizens a clearer look at the on-duty behavior of those sworn to serve and protect us. That means more direct accountability when police cross the line into misconduct or illegal action, but through an objective lens that also can directly help law enforcement — by clearing officers who act properly in tense or controversial circumstances, by helping to gather evidence at public scenes and by providing invaluable real-world training insight. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security sees the benefit of investing in this modern accountability mechanism and provides grants to help local forces with funding.

We’re glad to see Berkshire police departments also grasp the benefits and necessity of adopting bodycams. We applauded Great Barrington for becoming the first force in the county to mandate their use for all on-duty officers, and we similarly applaud Williamstown’s interim police chief for seeing the value in a policy he described as “low hanging fruit” — an obvious and common-sense way to advance his department’s transparency.

Yet as we’ve noted before, it’s painfully ironic that smaller Berkshire towns seem to be lapping the county’s most populous city — which has the most diverse citizenry and the largest police department — when it comes to seizing this “low hanging fruit.” The city’s police unions owe the Pittsfield community an overdue explanation as to why that’s the case for a measure backed by organized residents, city officials and the police chief alike. Absent any meaningful explanation, taxpayers are left wondering whether the primary reason for the unions’ holdup of the bodycam pilot is to leverage its rollout conditions for additional bargaining leverage amid contract negotiations.

Giving off that impression — unlike employing bodycams — only stands to erode public trust in city police’s prioritization of transparency and accountability. That could be nipped in the bud if the city’s police unions would answer one question: As other Berkshire communities and indeed other police unions back bodycams on police officers, why the unexplained delay in Pittsfield?

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