Photo by Ryan Johnson
“Expanding the role and number of police officers inherently contradicts the mayor’s stated goal of eliminating systemic racism.”
This March, the city of Somerville decided to require the use of body-worn cameras for police officers. The purchasing of such equipment would be a huge mistake. Body cameras are a popular policing reform not in spite of its lack of effectiveness, but rather because it lacks effectiveness. Reforms like body cameras allow politicians to get credit for “police reform” without implementing any real changes to reduce police violence.
At best, the data on body cameras reducing police violence is inconclusive. But what we do know is that despite hundreds of police departments getting body cameras, despite hundreds of videos of police murdering Black people—there is still no justice. Derek Chauvin was wearing a body camera when he murdered George Floyd. The police who murdered Breonna Taylor in her home also wore body cameras. Body cameras have done nothing to save Black lives from murder at the hands of police.
In the wake of the uprisings in Ferguson, President Obama announced $263 million in funding for 50,000 body cameras for police departments across the country. That was 2014, and since then, more than 4,000 people have been killed by police. Body cameras are expensive, with one estimate putting the cost at around $5,000 per officer for five years. With 100+ officers in Somerville that means we’ll be spending at least an additional $100,000 per year—and that’s before including the cost of additional training on how to use the cameras.
There were nationwide protests months ago when body camera footage of the police murders of Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo were made public. Unfortunately these videos are the exception to most body camera footage which is notoriously difficult to access. And still these videos have not brought us justice.
Police departments murder people, and the resulting reforms increase their budget. How is that accountability? To me, true progress means civilians aren’t being murdered by police to begin with. Police officers have the unique ability to arrest and kill people. It’s imperative for the sake of public safety to limit unnecessary death and arrest by reducing the power and scope of policing.
A year ago, Mayor Curtatone published a 10-point plan on reimagining policing—the first point was to declare systemic racism a threat to public health and safety. However none of the following nine points are aimed at significantly reducing the scope of policing in Somerville. In fact points seven and eight which respectively train police for “crisis intervention, health and mental wellness,” and diversify the candidates for police jobs actually increase the number of responsibilities police have and the number of people eligible for those responsibilities. Expanding the role and number of police officers inherently contradicts the mayor’s stated goal of eliminating systemic racism. In essence, the Mayor’s plan to “reimagine police” is to increase their funding yet again. There’s nothing imaginative about that.
If we want to eliminate systemic racism, we need systemic change—and that means a major reprioritization of city resources. Instead of the Mayor’s proposed $1.5+ million increase for the SPD budget, we could fund more housing, safer streets, and more services for the most vulnerable in our city.
The need for non-police responses to public safety was highlighted at the May 3 school committee meeting where we learned that Somerville Police arrested a child. The child was suspected of selling drugs and being in possession of a knife. The response from the police caused significantly more long term harm by creating a criminal record than the child in question did. Even Director of Student Services Elizabeth Doncaster stated during the meeting this “is not something we wanted to do.” Communities need to get more creative when it comes to public safety so we have options other than police when danger arises.
The safest communities in the country are distinguished not by a higher than average presence of police, but instead by the absence of poverty. Instead of investing in useless body cameras, let’s use our public funds to guarantee everyone in our community a home, food, healthcare, and education.
Matthew Kennedy is a Ward 5 resident and member of Defund SPD.