Police Access To Cameras In Springfield Schools Unleashes Debate On Police Protection And Overreach

Jun 14, 2021

The school department in Springfield, Massachusetts, is entering into an agreement that gives police access to surveillance camera footage recorded inside and outside of public school buildings.

One of the goals is to help police see, in real time, what’s occurring during an emergency, such as a school shooting. But giving police access to the cameras has led to a debate on what makes schools safe, especially for students of color.

Under the agreement, crime analysts, police officers and their supervisors can view live or stored recordings during an emergency — or a non-emergency investigation if the police get prior written approval. The cameras could also be accessed during police trainings, also with approval.

When the policy was approved in a 4-3 vote at an April school committee meeting, those voting against it were all women of color, including Barbara Gresham.

“This is a setup for our Black and brown students, mainly boys, pipeline to prison,” Gresham said in the meeting.

The school-to-prison pipeline Gresham referred to is considered a national trend by the American Civil Liberties Union, in which “minor infractions of school rules” lead to students being incarcerated.

But Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno disagreed. He said the agreement does not allow police to just randomly pull up video feeds whenever they want. The goal, Sarno said, is to prevent or solve a crime — that’s all.

“God forbid, God forbid something active [is] happening in the school and fire and police are called in there,” Sarno said. “The more information they have, the quicker they can get that information, the more they can quell or stop that situation. That’s all this is about. This is not about a set up for brown and Black students at all.”

“With due respect, Mr. Mayor,” Gresham responded, “That’s how I feel.”

School Committee Member Denise Hurst, who also voted against the agreement with the police, said access to the cameras could be misused.

“We could criminalize behavior that doesn’t need to necessarily be criminalized, that could be addressed by the many supports and services that we have in place, and as a result, our students could end up in the juvenile justice system,” Hurst said.

The district said police will be required to sign in with a password and keep a log of who accessed cameras and when.

William Baker, director of safety and security in Springfield’s schools, said at the meeting the camera views inside the building are limited, but critical.

“In the event that something were to happen, this would be lifesaving. It would be game-changing,” Baker said. "We’re not filming classrooms. We are not doing any of the educational areas. It’s the common areas in the schools. I think we’d be doing a disservice if we didn’t utilize these with proper guidelines for the purpose they’re being used for."

In Holyoke, there is no formal policy on access to cameras, but they do allow police to view exterior cameras and some interior ones. So far, the acting superintendent, Anthony Soto, said the police department has accessed the cameras only for incidents that occurred outside the school building.

In Chicopee, only school administrators and resource officers look at school cameras — not others from the police department.

“I just firmly believe that these are schools and I want to continue to treat them as schools, not as a neighborhood or as a block or a beat that somebody is walking,” said Alvin Morton, Chicopee assistant superintendent and the district’s liaison with the police.

He said a school shooting or a bomb threat is clearly an emergency, but other situations may be misinterpreted by police.

“A kid may be having a tantrum that may be on the spectrum or may be a socially, emotionally disturbed student that they may see as one way, but we understand what’s going on with that kid,” Morton said. “We have school counselors and social workers from the school that can de-escalate the situation without bringing another outside party into the situation that may not have the background information or knowledge to deal with it appropriately.”

Students hold signs at City Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, opposing school policing, in the summer of 2020.
Credit Ben James / NEPR

Criminal defense attorney Luke Ryan, who has sued Springfield police officers for violating the constitutional rights of his clients, said the technology could be used to identify — or misidentify — students as members of gangs, based on who they spend time with in school.

“It’s a recipe for putting a lot of young people on the radar of the police who don't belong there and turning them into suspects both in and out of school,” Ryan said.

Ryan said the Springfield police department is “particularly ill-suited to be given the reins to such sensitive and intrusive equipment.”

In 2018 and 2019, police officers in Springfield were charged with assaulting students inside school in two incidents. And last year a U.S. Department of Justice report found members of the police narcotics bureau used excessive force, including during an arrest of juveniles.

Hurst said she wants to make sure her two sons and their peers can feel safe in school – including safe from being watched.

"As we are fighting to ensure equity and safe environments and an increase in better community policing, this to me seemed to be going in the opposite direction," Hurst said.