Worcester Police Department Implements Drones, Body Cameras

Sophia Lindstrom, Scarlet Staff

Worcester’s City Council will meet to vote on whether to invest in body cameras and drones for the Worcester Police Department on April 19th. If approved, the 300 body cameras and tasers will cost $3,973,484 over five years and the drone, which will be paid for with a state grant, will cost $25,000. 

While the drone program has also not yet been voted on, Deputy Chief Paul Saucier revealed on Tuesday (April 5) during the Council meeting that the Worcester Police Department has borrowed drones from Framingham, MA, or the Massachusetts State Department, in two instances. The drones were used during a missing person case and a homicide investigation. 

Thu Nguyen, Worcester At-Large Councilor, was frustrated by this lack of transparency. “We have not yet seen a report on best practices and challenges,” they wrote in a Facebook post. “People are asking for more information and we deserve an honest and transparent government.” 

Nguyen, who ran on a platform of increasing government accessibility and transparency, continued the conversation on Twitter, writing, “the community (has) clear concerns. Send us the reports and copy of the grant.” City councilors voted to first present the issue to the public safety subcommittee, which is chaired by At-Large Councilor Kate Toomey. The committee seeks to create an official policy for the drone’s use. 

If approved, the drones would be used more widely for issues ranging from photographing traffic incidents and crime scenes to gathering intelligence on search and rescue missions, according to Patch. Furthermore, drone use would not be limited to the police department. The Worcester Fire Department and Quality of Life Team, which performs “outreach and enforcement among Worcester’s homeless residents”, would also be permitted to borrow the drone when necessary. 

Fire Departments across the country are now using drones to assess potentially hazardous situations, locate people trapped on upper levels of buildings, and predict potential climate-related threats from above. Over 50 percent of fire departments across the country own or have access to at least one drone for these purposes and more. 

City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. has submitted a report regarding body cameras to the Worcester City Council for consideration. According to the report, cameras would be used during all encounters between police and civilians, including 911 emergency calls, investigations, or police-initiated traffic stops, and whenever a supervisor requests it. If an officer is involved in a shooting or incident in which deadly force is used, the Detective Bureau supervisory personnel will be expected to secure the camera and upload all footage to a secure database. 

If approved, the police department would begin body camera training in July in time for the program to begin officially in September. 

For the entire police department to be equipped with body cameras, an additional 160 cameras would need to be purchased. However, the first 300 cameras will be divided between the Traffic Division Team, Neighborhood Response Team, Vice Squad, Recruit Academy Class, and Downtown Foot Beat. 144 of these cameras will be designated for Operations Days officers. 

The Worcester Police Department has already undergone a six-month pilot program for the use of body cameras in 2021. According to Spectrum News, the City of Worcester’s Human Rights Commission had a variety of concerns regarding the pilot program including the handling of privacy issues and the cost of the program. 

The body cameras will be purchased from a company called Axon, whose products have certain unique benefits for officers. According to MSN News, Chief of Police Steven M. Sargent supports the body camera program because the cameras are capable of turning themselves on to record specific areas when a firearm or taser is raised. This will save the Worcester Police Department $1,049,516 because without Axon’s technology, they would need to purchase more tasers and body cameras to achieve the same results. 

According to WBUR, Boston police have had body cameras since a successful pilot program in 2016; however, they have no policy requiring review of the footage for compliance. Additionally, Governor Charlie Baker implemented a $20 million grant in 2021 that ensured the purchase of 9,000 body cameras for the state of Massachusetts over five years. Partnering with Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Baker argued that cameras allowed for “opportunities to strengthen relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they serve.” 

Currently, only 10 percent of Massachusetts municipal police departments use body cameras, but over 75 percent of departments in the state have expressed interest in these programs. If approved, Worcester could be joining a small but quickly-growing minority. 

The Worcester City Council will be voting on body camera and drone policies on Tuesday, April 19th.