Why are Boston cops refusing body cameras?

A police body camera trial program is in place to start in Boston, but no police officers have volunteered to participate.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File
A Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration in Los Angeles in 2014. An agreement with Boston's largest police union to have 100 officers wear body cameras was praised as a step toward greater accountability. But with the Sept. 1 rollout date for the pilot program approaching, not a single officer has yet volunteered to wear one.

A new Boston Police Department (BPD) program to test body cameras on 100 officers is set to begin in September, except not a single officer has volunteered.

Now after push back from the police labor union, Mayor Marty Walsh has said he will make the program mandatory.

“It is a voluntary program, however, if officers don’t step up to do it or if we don’t get a sufficient amount of officers to do it, we’re going to be putting them out there on officers,” Mr. Walsh told the Boston Herald.

When it gets off the ground, the program is expected to last six months and equip roughly 5 percent of the Boston Police force with cameras in exchange for a $500 bonus at the end of the trial period. Then the footage and data will be reviewed and, if successful, a new body camera policy may be put into place.

Body cameras have become a hot-button topic in police departments around the United States in recent years, as civil rights activists and minority communities have pushed for better transparency in policing in the wake of a series of high-profile shootings of minorities by police officers. Boston has avoided much of the turmoil seen in cities like Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Ferguson, Mo., thanks, in part to a long-standing tradition of community policing, as The Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo highlighted last week.

The Boston Police Department as a whole, however, has been reluctant to adopt body cameras.

“From the top of the leadership on down [the BPD] have never been fully committed to body cameras so it doesn't surprise us that the everyday average officer is not fully in support of the program,” Segun Idowu, co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT), tells the Monitor. BPCAT has been fighting for community input on the body camera policy since Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson in 2014. 

“It is also a bit confusing because we have spoken to a number of officers who support the use of body cameras and want them because they want people to see the good work they do," Mr. Idowu continued.

Despite support for cameras in theory, officers may be worried they will get in trouble for minor offenses, or that people will be less willing to talk openly in front of a camera. Additionally, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the main Boston police union, is in charge of finding volunteers for the program and its recent focus has been on increased weaponry and body armor for police, not cameras.

“It may be that the problem with officers actually volunteering occurred because of timing,” Patrick Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, told the Boston Herald on Monday. “The city decided to agree to this program within a week of eight police officers being murdered in two separate cities and, meanwhile, our members were screaming for protection which was falling on deaf ears.”

While having to mandate the use of body cameras was not the outcome that the BPD wanted, it may improve the quality of the data that can be drawn from the experiment. Based solely on volunteers, the pool of officers with the body cameras would be less likely to accurately represent the diversity of age, race, gender, experience level, and neighborhood affiliation of Boston's officers.

Regardless of what the BPD initially wanted for the program, it appears that the department has no choice but to make the program mandatory due to the lack of volunteers.

“Police officers are public servants and they work for the city of Boston and if the mayor makes a decision for something to happen they can do it or be fired,” Idowu tells the Monitor. “We have never understood why it was voluntary since it was in the power of the mayor and the commissioner to mandate the program. They just wanted to work with the union, which makes sense, this is Massachusetts.”

Police departments all over the country have been working on implementing body camera programs for a few years with mixed levels of success. During a body camera trial in Rialto, Calif., the cameras benefited both officer and civilian as the use of force by officers with cameras dropped 59 percent and complaints against officers fell by 87 percent. However, New York’s trial program was not as successful, with officers using them at the wrong times and not collecting enough footage to hold them accountable.

Many Bostonians are wary of body cameras because of the potential privacy violation and think they may damage generally good community relations. BPCAT hopes that involving community members in the development of body camera usage policy will help alleviate those concerns. Right now the focus is on adding guidelines for when and how to use the cameras, a precedent for review of footage, and consequences for misuse of cameras to the policy.

Others think that the strong community relations will be what make the program a success.

"I think we've shown what kind of a class act department we are, but we are going to give them a try and see if the results are positive," Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said in an interview with Boston Herald Radio in April.

Mr. Evans said he hopes the program will begin by Sept. 1, but last September, the start date was set for May 2016 and has been pushed back nearly every month since April when it became clear the initial goal would not be met. Idowu says BPCAT is skeptical about a September start date, but is hopeful that by the end of the year there will be police testing out the cameras.

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