Police Seek Funds For Body Cameras, A First For The Area

by Alan Pollock

CHATHAM – Saying they increase accountability and decrease frivolous complaints against officers, Police Chief Michael Anderson has included a request for body cameras in his fiscal 2025 budget.

The cost of purchasing 22 cameras and related equipment is estimated at $150,000, and the police union supports the move, Anderson said.

Speaking to the select board on Jan. 30, Anderson included the request along with his department’s other proposed capital expenditures.

As part of the state’s Police Reform Act of 2020, a legislative task force studied the use of body-worn cameras for police, and determined that they would be beneficial but also costly.

“It was the hope of Cape police chiefs and police departments that these would be purchased by the state,” Anderson said, with the towns purchasing any upgrades or replacement units. “That never happened,” he said. Communities are now expected to purchase body cameras on their own, which Anderson said Chatham could have sought to do earlier.

“We could’ve asked for it last year, but quite frankly I was looking at other Cape departments,” the chief said. “I wanted to see what worked, and I wanted to see what didn’t work.” Five departments in Barnstable County currently use body cams, and six others are seeking funding in fiscal 2025, as Chatham is. While Harwich and Orleans do not use them, Brewster uses a system of cruiser-mounted cameras linked to microphones worn by officers, a system in place since late 2015.

Fortunately, the cost of the cameras has decreased, along with supporting hardware and software, and Anderson said he thinks the time is right for Chatham to move forward with them.

“That $150,000 would be enough to cover body cameras for everybody on the police department, 22 [sworn officers], myself included,” along with related hardware, software and storage, “and the training and the ability to download it and present it to either the courts, the public or the media,” he said. The three major manufacturers are all on the state’s bid list, and staff will continue to weigh the merits of each before selecting a vendor.

In some communities, police officers have voiced concern about the use of body cameras, but not in Chatham, Anderson said.

“I think we’re at a very unique place right now with the union,” he said. Contract negotiations are underway, but the union has signaled that it will not oppose the idea. “I think that they want these cameras as much as I do, and hopefully as much as you do,” the chief told the select board.

While body cameras are clearly tools to improve officer accountability, they have other benefits, he said.

“Obviously it shows the adherence to policies and procedures; it shows the officers’ actions or inactions,” he said. “But one of the things that’s positive, it decreases the amount of frivolous complaints that come across my desk.” While the department has very few such complaints and officers are exonerated in most of those cases, they can be extremely stressful.

“We had a case a few years ago when I arrived on scene as the third officer, and I could see it being a volatile call,” Anderson said. He recorded the man’s arrest with his cell phone camera, and later that day the individual’s wife came to the station to lodge a complaint. Anderson showed her the video. “I said, ‘Is this the individual that you’re referring to?’” Confronted with the footage, the woman apologetically withdrew her complaint, the chief said. While the number of such complaints is small, having supportive evidence is crucial. “It’s important if you’re the officer,” he said.

“You wear them all the time, and you let folks know they’re being taped?” select board member Jeffrey Dykens asked. Officers would wear them for traffic stops and other interactions with the public, and would mention to people that they are being recorded. The devices can be turned off in some settings like public meetings, Anderson said.

Key to the success of the program will be the department’s protocols for their use. Chatham will follow the best practices established by other departments, and will align the policy with the state’s criminal justice academy and the Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police. But some issues need to be worked out, including the protocol for completing incident reports, with some sources encouraging officers to watch the footage before writing their reports, and others saying they should only watch the video after writing their narrative.

“Basically it comes down to what the officers’ perspective is on why they made a decision, so they’re not operating for the camera,” Anderson said.

The Chatham Police responded to just over 7,200 calls for service last year, the third year of declining numbers since 2019, when there were about 9,000 calls, Anderson said. The request for body cams is included in the department’s budget request, which will be subject to changes until it is considered by voters at the spring annual town meeting.