Police dashcam foes, fans stake out sides in Northampton

  • Victor Caputo, captain of operations at the Northampton Police Department, points out the dashcam in a cruiser. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dashcam in the front window of a Northampton Police Department cruiser. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dashcam in the front window of a Northampton Police Department cruiser. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dashcam in the back seat of a Northampton Police Department cruiser. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2022 6:17:31 PM
Modified: 2/18/2022 6:17:21 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council has given Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra permission to negotiate a five-year contract with Motorola Solutions to upgrade the Police Department’s dashboard cameras.

The 6-3 vote on Thursday night settled a weeks-long public dispute over the proposed contract that brought activists to virtual meetings in droves, arguing against a perceived increase in government surveillance. Councilors Jamila Gore, Alex Jarrett and Rachel Maiore voted no.

The IT Services Department, which manages all technology purchases for the city, plans to update the dashcams from the current Pro-Vision system to WatchGuard ,provided by Motorola Solutions, a company known to contract with Immigration & Customs Enforcement and provide security services to Israel in the Palestinian territories. The City Council must vote on any contract longer than three years.

Policing reform and abolition activists have raised the alarm that WatchGuard has the capability of sharing data with federal immigration authorities through its cloud-based data storage, in potential conflict with Northampton’s status as a Sanctuary City. Officials including Joe Cook, the city’s chief procurement officer, have said that the city will own all data and decide what happens with it.

“Any cloud storage solution is going to have a lot of concerns, especially this one,” Dan Cannity, the former co-chair of the Policing Review Commission, told the City Council on Thursday night. He brought up the company’s Master Customer Agreement, which he said all customers are required to sign and the terms of which can be changed at Motorola Solutions’ discretion.

Having a camera system tied to cloud-based storage “seems really problematic, especially when we just heard that it’s going to be really private and really safe,” Cannity said. “I don’t necessarily think we’re going to get Motorola to make an exception for our city.”

Police Chief Jody Kasper said the federal government would have to go through the court system to gain access to evidence compiled by Northampton’s dashcams.

‘The fairest representation of what happened’

Asked by the Gazette if the Northampton Police Department’s in-car camera system is a benefit to citizens, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan was unequivocal: “What a gift to folks in Northampton to be able to get a conviction of a serial arsonist.”

Anthony Baye pleaded guilty to 48 charges in 2013, admitting that he set or tried to set about three dozen fires, mostly in the Ward 3 neighborhood where he lived, starting in 2007.

“The dashcam evidence in that case was fundamental to a conviction,” Sullivan said on Friday, recalling the 2009 house fire that killed Paul Yeskie Sr. and Paul Yeskie Jr., one of the arsons for which Baye is serving up to 20 years in state prison. “I can’t say enough about how that built the right case. It showed him in the neighborhood of a fire late at night and helped further the investigation.”

Sullivan is a former defense attorney and said he sees the merits of dashcams for defendants, as well.

“Dashcams are a great tool for a prosecutor because there’s no dispute. What’s on film is what’s there. There’s no interpretation and it’s both sides,” he said. “If (an OUI defendant) was driving with no impediments or no impairments, that’s good for the defendant, as well.”

David Hoose, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney who served on the city’s Policing Review Commission, said he was “a little disturbed” that the city would spend $133,000 over five years on dashcams while the Department of Community Care is not yet operational or, in the view of many activists, fully funded.

“I firmly stand by the work of the Policing Review Commission, that (the new department) must be the priority,” Hoose said. “The priority should be to reduce the footprint of the police in Northampton.”

But Hoose, who was one of Baye’s defense attorneys, said dashcams help defendants more than harming them. He recalled several OUI cases in which his clients’ field sobriety tests were caught on dashcam and said it is not unusual for a judge to see that video and disagree with the police version of events.

Easthampton defense attorney Alfred Chamberland said he always prefers to have video in a criminal case because it provides an “unambiguous, unbiased account of what happened.” He is “frustrated,” he said, that more communities don’t have dashcams.

Most cases involving dashcam video, he said, are OUI and other alleged crimes involving the operation of a vehicle.

“The video doesn’t lie. It’s going to be the truth of what happened,” Chamberland said. “I think it’s the fairest representation of what happened on the side of the road. … I might have a police report that is full of exaggerations or it’s slanted in favor” of the police perspective.

At Thursday night’s Northampton City Council meeting, Northampton defense attorney Dana Goldblatt took the opposite view.

“They seem really helpful, right?” Goldblatt said. “The goal of the dashcam is to elicit self-incriminating statements during a conversation, and they work.”

She said there is a field of research into why suspects make self-incriminating statements when they know they’re being recorded, and that police-generated video is “staged.”

“The police officer is also the cinematographer. He knows when to step in and out of frame,” Goldblatt said.

Sullivan, the Northwestern district attorney, said Friday that such claims are “baloney.”

“Police officers are not trying to stage anything. They’re busy enough as it is,” Sullivan said, adding that dashcams do not capture audio. “To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened in Hampshire County.”

During civil lawsuit depositions, Hoose and his team have used video to press police officers about inconsistencies in their previous statements, and two of those cases have resulted in six-figure payouts for his clients, he said.

Column controversy

In a Feb. 14 guest column in the Gazette, At-Large City Councilor Marissa Elkins, also a defense attorney, wrote that she would vote to approve the dashcam contract. Despite some activists’ public claims to the contrary, she wrote that police officers cannot edit or delete footage or turn off the dashcams at will.

“Footage of police-citizen interactions is a vital tool in every defense attorney’s belt to compel fairer operation of the criminal legal system,” Elkins wrote. “Whether captured by dashcams or a bystander’s phone, video helps hold the police accountable and provides the objective footage needed to challenge unconstitutional interactions.”

The activist group Northampton Abolition Now, which advocates for alternatives to policing and refers to dashcams as “demonstrably harmful” in online materials, called Elkins’ column a “personal, narrow perspective.” The group compiled sample letters for concerned citizens to send to the City Council and Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra.

The sample letters read, in part, “We believe that there are no ethically acceptable dash cam providers because there are no ethically acceptable dash cams. Surveillance technology, like nuclear bombs, Agent Orange, and Donald Trump, have no place in civilized human society, and especially not in a city that proudly calls itself a sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants.

“Please take a look at what the human rights and civil liberties community, as well as Black, Brown, and poor people say about surveillance,” the sample letters read. “If surveillance truly brought accountability, wouldn’t those groups be clamoring for it?”

At Thursday’s meeting, Ward 1 Councilor Stanley Moulton stood up for Elkins, whom he referred to as “eminently qualified” on the issue of dashcams.

“Some have called her column that was published in the Gazette on Tuesday ‘shameful’ and ‘offensive.’ Well, what’s shameful and offensive is that any one of us, or any citizen of this city, would be subjected to that kind of bullying,” Moulton said. “It’s despicable, intolerable, anti-democratic and antithetical to the kind of civil discourse that I was hoping to engage in when I suggested that we have a forum on this subject.”

His defense of Elkins was echoed by several others on the council.

“People in my community, and people who I thought knew me and knew my integrity, have questioned my experience in ways that were profoundly painful and denigrating,” Elkins said, detailing her 20 years of experience as an attorney, public defender and police accountability activist.

“It is fair to say I came into this issue with an extensive amount of knowledge regarding policy, the applicable law, the operation of invasive surveillance technology (and) I consider this more akin to more traditional evidence preservation” like crime scene photos, interrogations and booking videos, she said.

City Council President James Nash said the council “does its best work when we’re all working together,” and “I very much appreciate that the council rallied around” their colleagues and other officials who have taken criticism in recent weeks.

While supporting the call for a citywide discussion about the use of dashcams in general, Ward 2 Councilor Karen Foster said the city needs a police department that is equipped to do the work that the broader community deems appropriate.

“Listening does not necessarily mean doing what somebody is asking us to do,” Foster said. “What we need to understand is that public comment is not perfectly representative of the views of our community.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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