Shaping the future of police accountability

A Springfield police officer is dressed in protective gear that features a body-worn camera to record public engagement.

By Lianne Zana

The Springfield Police Department has implemented body-worn cameras to record all encounters of direct contact with the public to heighten the level of transparency among law enforcement and city residents.

Body cameras came into the spotlight in 2014 after the officer-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. An investigation of the incident sent a ripple of effect of calls for improved police accountability throughout the country. Springfield Police Department members and elected city leaders agree that the innovation protects officers from false allegations and protects the public from police misconduct.

“It’s amazing how many officers were accused of wrongdoing and later exonerated by the cameras,” Police Captain Brian Keenan said. “They’ve really supported what we’ve said all along — that the guys do a great job.”

Body cameras were first introduced to the Springfield Police Department in the summer of 2020. In July of that year, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts launched an investigation into the Springfield Police Department. The findings revealed that the Narcotics Bureau, (now known as the Firearms Investigation Unit) engaged in patterns of excessive force.

A settlement agreement was reached in the spring of 2022, resolving the DOJ’s claim that the city and the Narcotics Bureau of the police department engaged in excessive force that deprived individuals of their rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Under the agreement, the police department was expected to improve policies and training related to officers’ use of force. All officers are now equipped with body cameras on their chests. The first five years of the program, up to 2024, is estimated to cost about $2.5 million. The department was also ordered to provide better supervision to officers and improve internal investigations of complaints of officer misconduct. The agreement notes that officers who violate use-of-force policies will be held accountable.

“Prior to the cameras, it was he said, she said, and we got a lot of cases of police misconduct,” Springfield City Councilor Orlando Ramos said. “The number of complaints has actually gone down since the implementation of the cameras because the public knows they’re on camera, so they’re behaving differently, and they’re not making false allegations against the police officers since they know they’re being recorded now.”

Body cameras were a priority for Ramos when he was elected to public office in 2013. In May of 2015, Ramos sponsored a piece of legislation asking the Springfield Police Union to negotiate body cameras with the city of Springfield in the next bargaining agreement, which was to take place a few months later.

The campaign for body cameras was not an overnight success story. Ramos said an early contract had gone through arbitration, and a ruling said that there should be a commission assembled to study how the cameras would work and be implemented.

“The arbitrator was essentially just punting it until the next contract; it was very frustrating” Ramos said. Additionally, there was debate surrounding the role of cruiser cameras, and whether that tool was enough to satisfy Ramos’ goal. Five years later, city leaders were able to negotiate body cameras into a new contract and implement it to the point where every officer in the city wears one.

In 2019, the police department did a feasibility study for the body camera program. The department put out a request for proposal for a consultant who would assist the department in the launch of the program and policy development.

The first class on body cameras was held on June 1, 2020, and the roughly 12 people who went through it were the first to receive cameras. In addition to the program, then-Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood created an internal audit unit that reviews footage, to ensure that officers are adhering to the department’s policies.

“Once taking pictures with cellphones became so prevalent, along with street cameras, you were being recorded anyway,” Clapprood said. “I knew it would be important to get the officer’s view.”

Keenan, who first started his career in policing in 1997, noted how the body cameras have also assisted in legal proceedings surrounding officer-involved incidents.

“I’ve had judges tell me that it’s made their lives a lot easier,” Keenan added. “For instance, at a dangerousness hearing, they’ll talk about how a subject was acting, and three months later, the suspect is in court with a suit on sitting next to an attorney speaking the Queen’s English – all it takes is that body camera and you can see the true way of how the suspect was acting.”

In its first year, the department’s body cameras captured more than 16,000 hours of video. Since the cameras capture all encounters with the public, most of the footage is not closely analyzed by the internal audit unit. However, any of the footage can play an important role in the outcome of future legal proceedings.

“It might be as simple as ‘how do I get to interstate 91 from here,’ or it might be a call of domestic violence in which officers have to separate fighting parties,” Captain Edward Geier said.

Geier has been with the Springfield Police Department since March of 1986, and has been heavily involved with the implementation of body cameras among the officers in recent years. Geier said the cameras serve several purposes: Firstly, it is a methodology to record interactions and protect officers from specious or fraudulent complaints. Secondly, it serves as an additional form of evidence, which can later be utilized in court. Finally, it is a behavior modifier for both the officers and the citizens.

“I’ve been told time and time again feedback from a lot of the officers, ‘it’s amazing; everything you do and say is being recorded and then all of the sudden their tone changes, their attitude changes, because they’re on camera,’” Geier said.

Body cameras give a truthful glimpse into officers’ personal interactions with civilians. Geier said that the tool benefits the public by presenting how law enforcement leaders are handling their encounters with the public.

“Citizens benefit from the fact that the interaction was recorded, and [they] know whether [their] police officers are being professional and doing the job that they’re supposed to do.”

The impact of Michael Brown’s death on law enforcement still reverberates throughout crime-filled cities such as Springfield. Notably, in the years that followed the high-profile case, officers have fallen victim to what has been dubbed the “Ferguson Effect.” The theory suggests an increase in violent crime rates, caused by reduced proactive policing because of the community’s distrust towards police. Geier said that in the early days in which the Ferguson Effect took hold among police throughout the country, body cameras helped abate the phenomenon by presenting officers performing their duties as they were trained.

“When [the Ferguson Effect] happened, officers would hold back for fear of being under siege and under attack; the body cameras alleviate that fear, because everything is on tape.”

A prominent example of this instance is the case of Orlando Taylor, a 23-year-old man who was shot and killed by police in January of 2022, after stabbing an officer in the face. Body camera video shows Taylor advancing toward an officer with a knife, as the officer continues to retreat.

During the initial investigation, Geier said there was “a lot of moaning and groaning from the public, and some outlandish accusations,” but once the district attorney released the body camera footage, “you never heard another word of it.” Geier suggests that without the footage of the incident, Springfield police officers would continue to be the subjects of false accusations.

“Everyone agrees that what happened was a tragedy. But there’s no ‘maybe this happened’ or ‘maybe that happened.’ No, this is what happened. The existence of the recording showed everybody what it was,” Geier said.

About Lianne Zana 4 Articles
Lianne Zana is an Emerson College graduate student from Western Massachusetts. Born in Paris, France and raised in Longmeadow, Lianne has more than three years of experience in television news producing at WWLP-22News in Springfield. She attended University of Connecticut for her undergraduate studies, where she pursued a double-major in journalism and communication. Lianne plans to use the skills she's acquired at Emerson and WWLP to continue her work as a news producer in a larger market.