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BPCAT calls for vote on police body camera plan

As Commissioner Evans writes his own policy, BPCAT calls for city council vote

Jule Pattison-Gordon
BPCAT calls for vote on police body camera plan
Activists gathered at City Hall calling for a vote on a police body camera ordinance. (Left to right): Ben Pittman-Polletta of Boston Door Knockers; Stina Stannik, ACLU Intern; Michael Martin, Boston Door Knockers; Segun Idowu and Shekia Scott, co-founders of BPCAT; Matt Keefe, Boston Door Knockers; and supporter Kevin Nelson.

Last week, activists with the Boston Police Camera Action Team were back in City Hall, calling on the council to vote on an ordinance mandating body-worn cameras for Boston Police Officers.

The ordinance was filed last August.

In September Boston Police Superintendent William Evans announced his own pilot project, which would outfit a portion of the department’s patrol officers with the devices.

The back-and-forth between the activists and police reveals the simmering battle over the implementation of body-worn cameras and, more importantly, the policies and procedures that govern their use. It is a battle that, until last week, the City Council has side-stepped.

Representatives of Boston Police Camera Action Team, ACLU Massachusetts and Boston Door Knockers delivered petition signatures and letters to the City Council Main Office and to Councilors Stephen Murphy and Michael Flaherty. Both councilors opposed body cameras during the August hearing, according to BPCAT’s website, and failed to respond to a BPCAT survey asking their views on cameras and camera policy.

BPCAT and its supporters hope that by pushing for a vote now they can get their ordinance — which they say has met with widespread resident approval — in place before the commissioner develops his own, explained co-founders Segun Idowu and Shekia Scott.

“The commissioner said he spoke to unions, lawyers and officers for the pilot but not a word on having spoken to the community,” Scott said. “We want to be sure it’s a tool that protects officers and citizens. We want it to be transparent for everyone.”

“I have no doubt he [the commissioner] will put something forth that only protects his folks and puts the community second,” added Idowu.

Flaherty was not in office at the time letters were delivered and has not responded to Banner questions. Shaikh Hasib, Flaherty’s communications director, told the Banner the councilor supports the mayor and Boston Police Department’s support of body cameras. It remains unclear whether Flaherty supports BPCAT’s ordinance.

The activists encountered Murphy outside his office and handed him materials. They were only able to speak briefly with him, as Murphy said he was en route to an engagement. Michael Martin, media connect for Boston Door Knockers, said that, upon seeing the activists, Murphy told them he “knew all about it” before hearing what the signatures were for.

Internal process

Lieutenant Detective Mike McCarthy, director of media relations for BPD, said that a policy is being drafted. The process is handled internally by the commissioner, police unions and legal teams, he said.

“It will be an internal policy vetted through unions as well as the legal teams here.”

BPCAT’s ordinance is not being taken into account, “because policies are developed internally, we don’t take it from outside sources,” he said.

There has been some community involvement. McCarthy said the team met and received input from clergy, local leaders, city councilors and community members and activists, including the NAACP and Urban League. He did not recall whom the clergy members represented.

“We have some city councilors that have been informed of the process, several members of clergy and community activists that have been involved in development of the policy,” he said.

Regarding clergy he said, “We’re making sure that their concerns and concerns they’re hearing from their congregations are included in any policies we develop.”

Individual police officers were not queried, but their views were conveyed by the union.

McCarthy said that the policy can be adjusted after the pilot.

“It’s not a done deal. It’s at the pilot stage. That’s the purpose of a pilot stage: to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Currently, discussions are underway with vendors on equipment costs, while legal teams examine the policy draft. The draft will not be released for public comment. Once approved by legal, the policy will be issued.

BPCAT founders Segun Idowu and Shekia Scott brought petition signatures and letters to Councilor Michael Flaherty’s office. Behind them: Boston Door Knocker’s Ben Pittman-Pollett and Michael Martin.

Commissioner’s plans

Concerns around body cameras have included protecting privacy — including that of informants and civilians in their homes — as well as ensuring enforcement of policy rules and deciding both who can see videos and how long they will be kept.

McCarthy said the draft policy includes language regarding the length of time data is stored for and when a camera would be turned on or off.

BPCAT’s proposed rules outline penalties for improper camera use, which Idowu told the Banner in August, makes their policy unique to other existing ones. Penalties also will be included in the commissioner’s guidelines. McCarthy said the commissioner’s policy will apply current disciplinary rules in to camera misconduct.

“We have pretty firm discipline rules in place. We will refer to those rules within the policy,” said McCarthy.

The pilot will assign cameras to a limited number of officers in districts across the city, said McCarthy. He said the original plan calls for the cameras to go to patrol force officers, but that as the full list of units is not finalized and no participating officers have been selected yet, that may change.

Cameras likely will not be provided to undercover or investigative officers or gang units, he said, and definitely will not be used by homicide units.

In determining the pilot’s success, the city will judge costs, feasibility and success at reducing incidents of complaints against officers, McCarthy said.

Deadline approaches

Idowu aims to bring BPCAT’s policy to a council vote before the November election. He expects election pressures to inspire greater response and action from councilors on the issue.

“Officials are really only open to constituents during voting times,” Idowu said.

He views December as the last chance to get a responsive policy in place.

“This dies in committee if it reaches the end of the voting cycle. At that point, there is no doubt the commissioner will have his own pilot program,” Idowu said.

“We’re in final stages of policy development now,” said McCarthy. “[The pilot is] not too far off.”

Raising awareness

Boston Door Knockers assisted BPCAT in obtaining signatures supporting their body camera ordinance and bringing it to a council vote.

More than 400 people signed pre-printed letters, with many writing their own messages, said Idowu. More than 600 people signed their petition. Signatures were gathered by knocking on doors and distributing information on streets in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and South Boston, Scott and Idowu said.

Martin noted that most people with whom they spoke were not aware that the city now supported implementing body cameras or that the people had rights in regards to the policy.

“We found most people there didn’t know the choice had changed. They thought it was about if you wanted cameras or not. They didn’t know now it’s about whether they have a voice in how cameras are handled,” Martin said.

Councilors’ stances

As the Committee on Government Operations’ chair, Flaherty has control over bringing the body camera ordinance to a vote, Idowu said. The City of Boston website states that the council’s presiding officer “decide[s] all questions relating to priority of business” and puts forward motions for consideration.

“It is up to him to bring a vote,” said Idowu.

Idowu said that attempts to meet with Flaherty recently and in past months have been unsuccessful.

BPCAT surveyed councilors in August on their support of the revised ordinance. It received positive responses from Councilors Ayanna Pressley, Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey, according to BPCAT’s website. Councilor Michelle Wu said she supported a camera pilot but wanted safeguards affecting civil liberties and confidentiality. The survey posted by BPCAT did not include a question asking her about the ordinance. No other councilors responded.

In a more recent meeting, Councilor Mark Ciommo agreed to examine the six-page ordinance before forming an opinion, said Idowu. Councilor Josh Zakim told Idowu he would not vote for it.

Idowu said he will continue to seek a meeting with the mayor and commissioner as well as other councilor members to push for the body camera ordinance and vote.

Police news: gang list

BPD’s McCarthy shed light on the police’s gang database.

The police department’s intelligence unit maintains, and approves access to, a list of individuals thought to be in gangs or gang involved.

(This list is distinct from MassGangs, a statewide database launched in 2009 to facilitate the sharing across police districts of information related to gang-members. McCarthy said the BPD never used MassGangs).

Civilian partners and law enforcement professionals in multiple jurisdictions can request to see the list, McCarthy said. The request approval process prevents officers from accessing the list when stopping someone on the street. Knowing someone is in a gang does not provide sufficient grounds to stop them, he said.

Individuals are not informed when they are added to the list and are not allowed to view it. McCarthy said that this was to prevent them from securing identities of rival gang members or having the same happen to them.

Once a name makes the list, it seems it may never be removed. If police do not have involvement with a person on the list for a certain amount of time — McCarthy did not recall how long — the person is marked ‘inactive.’

“List size doesn’t mean there’s that many gang members. ‘Inactive’ vs. ‘active’ is how we classify,” he said.

McCarthy did not know the size of the gang list or how many are labeled active members.