Boston’s highest-ranking police official testified Tuesday that he has the power to assign body cameras to a group of officers after none volunteered to wear them, but union officials insisted that such a move would violate a recent agreement with the city.
“I think it is my lawful authority as a police commissioner,” Police Commissioner William B. Evans said at a hearing in Suffolk Superior Court on a lawsuit filed by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association to delay the body camera program.
Advocates across the country have called for police to wear body cameras to document confrontations between officers and the public. But in Boston, a move to require 100 officers to use the devices, after a voluntary effort failed, has run into sharp resistance from the police union.
It was revealed Tuesday that the union had posted notices urging its members not to participate in the program until an agreement was reached with the city on how the cameras would be used. On one notice, the warning “Sanction any officer who volunteers” was scrawled across the top, according to court records.
A deal was forged in July, but notices discouraging volunteers remained on a union bulletin board in Hyde Park as recently as last week, said Kay Hodge, a lawyer representing the city.
“You never dispelled the sort of general sense that people were reluctant to sign up,” Hodge told Patrick Rose, president of the largest police union in Boston, during Tuesday’s hearing. “The general word out there was not to volunteer.”
Rose said he did not want officers to volunteer without an agreement. “We didn’t want people not to wear them,” he testified Tuesday.
Hodge said that while Rose has expressed support in public for the body camera program, not one of the 26 officers on the union’s executive board or the 61 officers in the union’s house of representatives volunteered.
Evans, who has said he eventually wants to have a permanent camera program, said that he never saw a letter from the union encouraging officer participation and that officers would not go against the union.
“They stand united,” he said. “If the president and the association says don’t volunteer, you’d be ostracized if you volunteer.”
At least one officer did volunteer, Rose said, adding that the city did not do enough to educate officers about the program.
“Nobody went out to sell the program to our members,” he said. “That’s not our function; that’s the city’s function.”
Both sides said they did not anticipate the lack of volunteers for the six-month program, which aims to have 100 officers participate.
The lawsuit, filed two weeks ago by the union, alleges the city violated collective bargaining agreements when Evans assigned 100 officers to wear the devices.
Hodge told Judge Douglas H. Wilkins that there “is no basis” for an injunction to be granted and that the city plans to file a counterclaim in the case.
The launch of the pilot program has now been pushed back to Sept. 12. Wilkins said he hopes to rule by Friday.
“The parties are in agreement that the body camera program should go forward,” said Susan Horwitz, a lawyer representing the union. “The only issue is volunteer versus non-volunteer.”
The program has been delayed for eight months amid union negotiations. Evans said he risked losing two vendors the city had chosen to supply the cameras, Taser and VIEVU, because of the delay. But he said he preferred to reach a deal with the union rather than “throw it down” their throats.
Horwitz said the judge should delay the program to give both sides time to educate officers about the cameras and encourage volunteers. If enough officers still do not come forward, the city could then assign cameras to officers, she said.
As it stands, the city moved too fast to assign the devices, she said.
At the heart of the initial delay was a union demand that officers be able to view video footage before making written statements and other reports, an issue that civil rights activists and civic leaders oppose. The pilot policy allows for officers to review the footage before making a report.
Rose also said the timing of the pilot program “was horrible,” citing the shooting deaths of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., in July, which followed police-involved shootings of black men. Boston officers were also concerned about the equipment and how to use it, Rose said.
Evans said he and his command staff attended roll calls to encourage officers to step up.
“We have nothing to hide,” Evans said he told officers. “This is only going to show how difficult our job is.”
Evans said that video footage from nearby businesses helped prevent public unrest after three recent police-involved shootings by showing why officers opened fire.
Evans said he was initially lukewarm to body cameras, but now sees the value in them. It is what the public wants, he added.
“They want us to be as accountable and transparent, as much as we can, in everything we do,” he said.
Providing cameras to the entire Police Department would cost more than $5 million in the first year, according to an affidavit filed by deputy police Superintendent John J. Daley.
Many civic leaders have called the union’s lawsuit the latest in a series of obstructionist moves that have put the Boston Police Department behind other major city departments when it comes to reform-minded policies.
Police departments across the country, responding to citizen demands for greater transparency and accountability, have implemented such measures as independent civilian review boards, and, more recently, the use of body cameras.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed an amicus brief backing the city’s authority to assign body cameras to officers.
“Having a department that is grounded in community policing and not a single officer volunteered is troubling,” said Carlton Williams, staff attorney for the ACLU.
Segun Idowu, co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, questioned Rose’s effectiveness as union president.
“I wonder what the role of a union president is and of a union in general if his members are so ill-informed and ill-encouraged to participate in a program that the president of the union supports so astonishingly,” he said.