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Police union objection fails, body camera pilot starts

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Police union objection fails, body camera pilot starts
Segun Idowu, co-founder of BPCAT

After months of delays and a last-minute bid by the police union to stall the program, the Boston Police Department’s body camera pilot was cleared to launch Monday.

Last Friday, a state superior court judge rejected a police union call to put the pilot on hold, thus toppling the latest barrier to implementation.

An agreement between the police department, union and city called for 100 volunteers to be equipped with cameras. But when not one out of 1,200 eligible officers stepped forward — a possibility not envisioned in the agreement — Police Commissioner William Evans declared he would assign them.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts, spoke at a community meeting held on the body camera pilot in April.

This moved raised protest from Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association’s president Patrick Rose, who argued that the change violated the terms of their agreement. Rose said the issue was about protecting the validity of collective bargaining, and sought an injunction.

“If we don’t fight to preserve our collective bargaining rights, we could lose those rights,” Rose said in a statement following the ruling. “Injunction or no injunction, the BPPA is still committed to working with the city and the department to make sure the citizens of Boston get a body-worn camera pilot program that does what it is supposed to do, while respecting the rights of citizens and police officers alike.”

The injunction hearing delayed the pilot’s start, which most recently had been scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 1.

The course of the hearing brought to light tepid efforts by the BPPA to ensure sufficient volunteers, and inspired a full-throated statement of support for the pilot from Evans. Before the hearing was over, eight police command staff members stepped forward at Evan’s request to volunteer to wear cameras in a show of support.

State Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins issued his ruling last Friday, in which he said it is within the commissioner’s purview to assign cameras, thus allowing the pilot to proceed. Wilkins also concluded that BPPA’s primary concern — non-use of volunteers — was caused in part by the union’s own actions.

Policy implications

Segun Idowu, co-founder of Boston Police Camera Action Team, said that while the hearing was another frustrating delay of the long-sought pilot, the ruling may lay the groundwork for improving the policy governing camera use.

BPCAT and the ACLU of Massachusetts advocate for changing the part of the policy that allows officers to view footage before writing official reports. In what came as a surprise to Idowu, Evans revealed at the hearing that he had opposed this element, but the union pushed it through, Idowu recounted. Now — with the judge ruling that the commissioner has authority over implementing cameras — Idowu says BPCAT will push for Evans to revise that policy.

“We’re hoping he’ll rework this policy to fix that particular part and add consequences [for officers failing to comply with the policy],” Idowu said in a Banner phone interview.

Getting an untried piece of policy inserted after the pilot concludes may be more difficult than implementing and testing it now, Idowu said.

Racial relations

Andrea Campbell, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice, released a statement commending the ruling and saying that body cameras are an important step to strengthening relations between police and community.

Others, however, saw cause for concern in how the footage will be used. Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said current racial inequities in police discipline could be exacerbated if the footage is interpreted by officials who are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to white officers but not officers of color.

“Our concern is not the cameras themselves, it’s the objectivity with which people view them,” Ellison told the Banner. “It’s going to be based on the commissioner’s discretion — his assessment of what he thinks people did wrong. … People of color are not going to be given the benefit of the doubt.”

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ruled that the BPD practiced discipline of academy recruits in a racially discriminatory manner, with recruits of color receiving harsher discipline than white officers who committed the same level of offense.

Those viewing camera footage may apply the same racially-biased viewpoint when interpreting situations, Ellison said, and use that as an excuse to more severely punish or even terminate officers of color.

A greater proportion of officers of color will wear the cameras than white officers, which Ellison said means that more will be subjected to allegedly slanted judgment. According to plans the BPD announced in August, minorities will be overrepresented among those assigned cameras.

Blacks, who constitute 23 percent of the force in 2015, constitute 29 percent of those in the program. Latinos (9 percent of the police force) make up 13 percent of participants and Asians (2 percent of the force) are 3 percent, while whites (66 percent of the police force) represent 55 percent.

In the court

The hearing last week revealed that the union had discouraged officers from volunteering for the pilot before the union could reach agreement with the city. The perception of BPPA opposition persisted among the force long after the agreement was signed in July, with the union making only mild efforts to dispel it.

A notice circulated in June advised, “NOBODY in the BPPA membership should volunteer for this program.” Recently, that memo was still hanging on a union bulletin board with a handwritten note that volunteers would be sanctioned. In a late August, an officer at a community forum in Dorchester said the BPPA had told officers not to volunteer, Judge Wilkins noted.

Given these persistent perceptions and the union’s subsequent weak efforts to encourage any volunteers, the judge said the BPPA’s grievance over pilot assignments was partially “self-inflicted” and that the union may have violated its obligations to strive to ensure successful implementation of the pilot.

Judge Wilkins also ruled that the police commissioner has sole authority to require officers to wear the cameras, similar to the authority he has to assign uniforms, weapons and deployment.

Further arguments

The BPPA also raised concerns that implementation could put unwilling officers at greater risk, citing a study from the Rand Corporation that suggested officers wearing cameras may experience higher rates of assaults. However, the court noted that other studies contradict this and that the Rand Corporation said the reason behind the findings were unclear and, instead, might reflect officers being more confident in reporting assault when they have footage to back them up.

Wilkins further stated that the pilot will be useful in testing whether or not camera use does impact likelihood of assault.