FITCHBURG — In a move supported by both officers and citizens, the city has joined many others across the country in taking a giant step forward in law enforcement reform.
Police Chief Ernest Martineau joined the rest of his officers on July 3, by affixing a body camera to his uniform before going to work. He said the move has been 3 years in the making but is well worth the effort.
“The level of policing it now creates is extraordinary,” said Martineau, who has worked in the force for 37 years. “All of our interactions are being recorded. It brings a level of transparency greater than we have ever seen.”
While protection of the public was paramount in the decision to begin using them, body cameras also help protect officers, Martineau said.
“It’s going to protect them, and it’s going to protect the public, from misallegations,” he said. “I’ve already seen it.”
Following a recent foot chase between an officer and a subject, the subject came back to the police station days later to claim the officer acted inappropriately when taking him into custody. Upon his request to file a complaint against the officer, Martineau asked if he could review the camera footage before the man went forward with the complaint.
“I reviewed the body cam footage and it was 100% the opposite of what the guy was saying,” the chief said.
After showing the footage to the man, he said the individual decided not to file the complaint.
The body cameras are initiated in three different ways; when the officer turns on his cruiser’s blue strobe lights; removes his firearm from its holster; or presses the button on the front of the camera twice.
But in incidents like the recent foot chase, there is typically a moment that the camera wouldn’t catch right before the officer presses the button and begins the chase. In situations like that, Martineau said that a 30-second passive recording mode for the body cameras helps cover that portion of the incident. As soon as the officer presses the button twice the past 30 seconds are added to the video that has begun recording.
Martineau said that since July 3, police officers in the city have already logged over 3,000 evidence files, which are available to anyone upon an official public record request, with the exception of portions redacted to protect privacy and other sensitive information.
Of the three main phases the department went through to bring the body cameras to Fitchburg, Martineau said the hardest part wasn’t getting the $160,000 federal grant to pay for the 90-plus body cameras but finding the recurring revenue every year for the cloud storage of the non-stop deluge of evidence files pouring into the department’s data bank. Equal to that was the task of negotiating with the police union to add the new equipment in way that would be acceptable to both sides.
For example Martineau said he was able to negotiate the 30-second passive recording and, at the same time, agreed to the stipulation that officers did not have to wear them during extra pay traffic details.
“That was a concession on my part, but ya know what? They’re wearing them anyways,” he said of officers voluntarily wearing the cameras during overtime traffic detail.
As soon as the video is complete, it’s sent directly to their cloud storage, where the officers can immediately search for the file and review it.
The use of deadly force is the one time that he doesn’t want officers reviewing the footage immediately.
“When you use utilize deadly force you want to be able to articulate what your perception was, not so much what was on the camera,” Martineau said. “Any time deadly force is used the officer’s perception at that moment in time is more valuable than the video footage because perception is individualized. That was one [other issue] where I went back and forth with the union.”