Vanessa W. Lynch || @drvonskillet
Yesterday four of us went to meet with Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri to discuss the implementation of body worn and car cameras for the Springfield Police Department.Vira Cage of the ACLU, Ellen Graves from Arise for Social Justice, Holly Richardson of OutNow and Arise and me marched in to meet with Bariberi, Bill Mahony from the city’s Human Resources department, and Karen Romano who works for the Bargaining Collective for the city.
In Springfield 5 proposals can appear at a time and it is an arbitrators job to decide which proposals get to go through. This year, Mahoney and others voted in an exhibit from New Jersey detailing what it would be like to have dash cameras. Despite the fact that the police department and city officials support the idea of having cops wear cameras, the proposal was denied and is not up for vote/contract again by the police union until 2016.
When the contract was denied this time around, we decided to act at Arise and create a petition to begin gathering support for the cameras in 2016. The meeting with the Commissioner comes as another step to making sure that in 2016 the contract goes through as well as a larger plan to make sure the public is fully educated about the cameras, and part of our continued efforts to create police transparency and work to abolish the prison industrial complex.
So Thursday, October 2nd, Day 2 of the Month of Resistance to End Mass Incarceration, four of us, all women, two of us queer, two of us women of color, went in to our meeting with the new police commissioner. John Barbieri is the incoming commissioner whose term started in June of this year.
The Police Commissioner accepted us into his office about 13 minutes late as he was ‘in another meeting’ – a meeting we realized, which was with the two city officials, no doubt so they could get on the same page with each other.
We went in – he made us wait – and all took a seat around the large mahogany table in his office. I sat at the head of the table and looked up and across from me saw a memorial picture of the twin towers, the one on the left engulfed in flame and some kind of “9/11, Never Forget” headline underneath it.
Once we were seated Bill and Barbieri began explaining in great length where Springfield is at now with dash cams which is basically nowhere. Commissioner Barbieri is in favor of allowing the cameras but lists concerns of storage for all of the data, as well as money for installing cameras on each police cruise. Holly also brought up the need for a proper policy surrounding the cameras, such as how long and when they would be switched on (every interaction police have with the public) and off.
We went around to introduce ourselves and almost before we finished Barbieri quickly started speaking. He introduced Mahoney again as the person who would fill us in on where the contract was at currently. Bill Mahoney went on for several minutes talking bureaucracy and then Barbieri launched in and did the same. It was pretty clear they didn’t really intend for it to be a two way conversation.
After a few of us tried to speak a few times without much luck, Holly tried to question something that Barbieri said and he stopped, “Listen – it’s going to be a very long conversation if you don’t let me finish a sentence, okay?” he admonished. Bill Mahoney let out a quick, nervous laugh and stopped when he realized none of us were laughing with him. I got the very clear feeling that these ‘officials’ are not used to anyone standing on equal footing to them or posing a challenge to their authority. I get the feeling they are in a position to arrest or otherwise dispose of, belittle, condescend and threaten anyone who tries to speak to them like a human being. But I was pretty disturbed by the comment.
“It’s going to be a very long conversation if you continue to shut down every woman who tries to speak.” I said.
He stared into my eyes and got very still.
“I am not shutting down anyone. Listen folks, I am not your enemy, okay? You are not my enemy, none of us have to be enemies…” he went off for another few minutes and when he was finally finished (because I didn’t want to interrupt him) I told him, “None of us have used the word enemy. You just brought that energy into the room. Nobody said anything like that.”
The conversation continued, but not really, and we spoke about the realities of installing the body cameras by 2016. The whole thing felt pretty hostile. Barbieri told us that he was not speaking to the police union about body cameras, only dash cams. The joint committee that is discussing the cameras holds monthly meetings which consist of reps from the supervisor union, reps from the patrolman union, 3 department chiefs, and a camera expert. We asked if a member of the public would be allowed to sit in on these meetings, in the interest of transparency and to represent the community. The answer which took a long time to come out, was essentially, maybe, at a later time, when the policy has already been decided.
It seemed like we were winding down so I just spoke a little bit about my stake in the room. I told him that I was coming into his office as a woman of color, very much aware that every 28 hours a black person is killed in the country by cops and since September, 78 people have been killed by cops. I told him that it would save the city money from long and costly trials if the body cameras were installed. I brought up the local Springfield cases of Charles Wilhite and Delano Walker Jr. and how cameras are helpful to provide transparency from both sides.
He said he would not disagree with anything I said, very still, again.
When I spoke about the cops as part of the community and needing to work with the community not as an outside force against the community he spoke, “Guardians, not warriors. I agree with you.”
I asked Karen Romano if she had anything to say since she had been silent the whole meeting. She rambled for a few minutes about the city not being able to please everyone and support all the departments fire departments or police departments or whatever and flushed. Nothing; she was their token woman so no one can say they don’t have equal hiring practices. She said nothing.
Vira asked the Commissioner if she could ask a few questions about The Quebec Unit, and if there was any way that Springfield police would be removed from the schools. He quickly responded that that was the business of the school committee. When she asked if they would just disarm while they were in school he responded, “That’s never gonna happen.” He told us that he was one of the first 8 officers to be put in the schools. When asked why officers needed to be in the schools with guns, he said that he’s had officers afraid for their lives and that’s why they needed to be armed. But not to worry, as they are hand picked for their temperament and have training. He did say that the budget for trainings is always one of the first things slashed. Finally, since we had a few more minutes, we asked the officer if there was a policy in place for returning veterans and this question shook the whole room. Bill Mahoney bristled and said that the military dealt with the mental health of returning vets. Barbieri said the Department of Defense made sure they’re in good health when they return. We posed the question if it wouldn’t make sense to offer them mental health care screenings when they returned from active military combat zones and their response was that this would be discrimination. Barbieri said, “So when someone’s coming back from vacation…” I interrupted him and asked if he thought that going on vacation and going to Iraq were the same thing, he said, “you’d be surprised…”
“So, you’re saying that there’s no difference between going on vacation and going to war?” I asked.
He got pretty stoic again, and glared at me, “Don’t put words into my mouth.”
This last bit was a heated topic among the officials, which is really sad. Even if soldiers come back and want mental health care help, the environment seems like something that would make it impossible to even seek help. They said that if officers return from active duty and show indicator symptoms of PTSD of course they’ll take action. Everyone is always on the lookout for ‘bad apples.’
When asked about the body cams and mics, Mahoney mentioned that the folks in the union meeting had raised a concern about “reasonable expectation of privacy” if the police are in someone’s home – I raised the concern that when police are in someone’s home they most likely already feel violated and would be grateful for the recording of what happened. We went back and forth and after the vets question were getting ready to go. I asked the group if we could take a photo together, since the commissioner and the city are working so hard to create trust with the community and be transparent. Everyone sort of froze, and Barbieri stood up and said he was late for another meeting. Holly asked if we could take a photo with his picture in his office and he said we could take a photo in the hallway. We left and he attempted a smile.
This meeting was the first of many to come.
Police Camera Position Paper – Arise for Social Justice & Out Now on the use of body and dash cams on Springfield Police
Install Audio/Video Cameras – Petition to install cameras
The Case for Cruiser Cams – MassLive