Boston police officers wary of GPS for cruisers
Fear too much scrutiny of police under city’s plan
The pending use of GPS tracking devices, slated to be installed in Boston police cruisers, has many officers worried that commanders will monitor their every move while supervisors insist the system will improve their response to emergencies.
The change, a result of contract negotiations between the city and the patrol officers union, puts Boston in league with small-town departments across the state and big-city agencies across the country that have installed global positioning systems in cruisers.
Boston police administrators say the system gives dispatchers the ability to see where officers are, rather than wait for a radio response. Using GPS, they say, accelerates their response to a call for a shooting or an armed robbery.
The addition of GPS, which still needs City Council approval of the arbitration award package that resulted from the negotiations, is the most dramatic change from the new contract facing officers as the department begins a new level of scrutiny. Another change: Cameras equipped in district booking stations would record officers and preserve film of their bookings of suspects.
The GPS devices have stirred the most anxiety.
"We'll be moving forward as quickly as possible," Edward F. Davis said in an interview shortly before he resigned as police commissioner Nov. 1. "There are an enormous amount of benefits. . . . This is clearly an important enhancement and should lead to further reductions in crime."
An officer in trouble is also likely to get help faster if commanders know exactly where he or she is.
"If an officer calls for help, we'll know the cars that are closest to them," Davis said.
But some officers said they worry that under such a system they will have to explain their every move and possibly compromise their ability to court street sources.
"No one likes it. Who wants to be followed all over the place?" said one officer who spoke anonymously because department rules forbid police from speaking to the media without authorization. "If I take my cruiser and I meet [reluctant witnesses] to talk, eventually they can follow me and say why were you in a back dark street for 45 minutes? It's going to open up a can of worms that can't be closed."
Davis said that officers will not be disciplined if they can reasonably explain their whereabouts.
The department cannot discipline officers based on any information collected by the GPS devices in the first six months following their installation.
And the department must alert an officer if anyone from the public requests his or her GPS records.
"Our interest was the scrutiny," said Joseph Sandulli, a lawyer for the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association. "This thing keeps a permanent record of where an officer is all day. If he stops to go to the bathroom, that stop appears on the screen. If he goes a mile over the speed limit, someone can question that. It's quite an intrusion on people's lives."
Davis acknowledged that one of the advantages to installing the system will be the ability to keep track of officers and make sure they are not leaving their district or patrol area without permission or driving recklessly.
Officers "have had a lot of latitude in where they go. It's a huge change," Davis said. "Not a lot of people have this sort of control over them, but I think in our business, because of the safety factor, the benefit that you derive from knowing where your assets are in an emergency far outweighs any inconvenience."
Another officer said he is less worried about scrutiny than he is about how vulnerable it could make the department to tech-savvy criminals.
"How long is it going to be before some criminal mastermind . . . gets some kids at MIT to figure out how to break into the GPS system?" he asked. "Then they know where the cops are and can go rob banks."
Cheryl Fiandaca, spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department, said officials expect the system to be secure from hackers.
"The GPS is highly integrated into the 911 call management system," she said. "It is a private network and is not on the public Internet."
The department must give officers 45 days notice before the GPS devices are installed, according to the arbitration award.
The City Council must decide whether to fund the package, which calls for 13.5 percent in raises and additional money for longevity benefits, bonuses for officers with college degrees, and other perks. The total package amounts to a 25.4 percent increase in pay over six years.
Police and union officials negotiated changes to the department's camera surveillance policy. District stations are already equipped with cameras that are monitored in real time by a supervisor. The change would allow the department to record and preserve those images.
"The city obviously wanted more accurate records of what happens when people are booked and put in the cells," Sandulli said.
The cameras could help the department fight allegations that suspects were abused while they were booked or in police custody, he said.
"It's a tremendous advantage of the city because it means the end of frivolous lawsuits," Sandulli said. "It's a mixed matter for the union. On the one hand it helps an officer better defend himself if he is wrongfully accused, but on the other hand you're under scrutiny all the time."
Police said they can preserve the images indefinitely.
"These are internal cameras and do not have restrictions on preserving tape," Fiandaca said. "We intend to record and maintain as storage allows."