Deal reached on body cameras for Boston police
Up to 100 Boston patrol officers will begin wearing body cameras as soon as next month, officials said Tuesday, after a deal was reached between the city and the police department’s largest union to launch a six-month test of the devices.
The agreement means Boston police will join a growing number of departments across the country that have chosen to outfit their officers with cameras, at a time when controversial police shootings have prompted complaints about misconduct in several communities.
At first, the Boston program will be voluntary — a concern to some advocates, though most said they were pleased the cameras will soon be in use. Police Commissioner William B. Evans told WGBH’s Boston Public Radio Tuesday he would like to see a wider, permanent program implemented in the future.
Evans said he expects the program to begin in August. Officials said Tuesday that cameras have not yet been purchased and the department has applied for a grant to purchase systems to store and manage the video captured by the cameras.
“In Boston, we are fortunate to have strong relationships with our communities and I’m confident that body cameras will serve as another tool for the Boston Police Department to continue their work in the neighborhoods,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement.
Advocates who have urged Boston police to adopt cameras said that, for the most part, they are pleased with the policy the department has adopted.
“It looks like they listened to the community,” said Carlton Williams, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
But camera proponents say they are concerned that the program will be voluntary. They worry that officers with clean disciplinary records could be the only ones to step up, leading to a flawed account of the program’s effectiveness.
“We don’t want just the good officers to wear the cameras, but a good mix,” said Segun Idowu, co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, a community group who has advocated for their use.
The department will begin seeking volunteers, who will each receive $500 after completing the program, according to the agreement with the patrolman’s union.
Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy, a police spokesman, said the department is working to find volunteers and “the commissioner will make sure that it’s a diverse, representative sample that would include various districts and specialized departments like the gang unit.”
McCarthy said the participants would include officers of varying age and experience.
Advocates say body cameras are a tool that could help strengthen policing in the city and could bring transparency and accountability at a time when the nation is reeling from the series of police-involved shootings, including one last week in Louisiana and another in Minnesota.
“Having a body camera is like having three witnesses,” Williams said.
In preparation for the pilot program, the department has developed a policy for their use, relying on the approach implemented in other cities, such as New York and Las Vegas.
According to a copy of the policy obtained by the Globe, the cameras are to be activated only in the course of an officer’s official duties to record interactions with the public, including vehicle stops, searches of a suspect before an arrest, and all dispatched calls for service that involve contact with others, among other situations. The policy states that recordings should continue until the encounter has concluded.
Under the policy, people involved in the encounters don’t have to consent to being recorded, except in certain situations. For example, if an officer enters a home without a warrant, the occupant would have to be notified that they are being recorded and would have to agree.
Officers would have access to the recordings to complete an investigation; to prepare official reports; prior to giving a statement for an internal investigation; and to prepare for court.
Some advocates reached Tuesday evening remain concerned about the rules regarding recordings of police-involved shootings.
The policy states that officers or supervisors involved in, or witness to, a shooting would not be allowed to view a recording before investigators. But the officers would be allowed to view recordings made by their cameras before providing a statement to investigators.
“Having a person review it [beforehand] creates a super witness,” Williams said. “That’s problematic.”
The media would have access to the footage via public records requests; witnesses and crime victims would have to go through the Office of the Legal Advisor.
Officers will be required to ensure the cameras are functioning before the start of their shift, but the policy states that officers will not be disciplined for minor violations.
Idowu said there should be clearer guidelines as to what the consequences would be for officers who fail to follow department rules.
Advocates said they are eager for the start of the program.
Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, chairwoman of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee and the Social Justice Task Force — a panel of clergy and community leaders assembled by the police department last year — held a series of community meetings throughout the city to get feedback. Campbell said an overwhelming majority of residents who attended said they support body cameras for officers.
“I would like to see this happen as soon as possible,” she said.
Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association president Patrick M. Rose said the pilot program will enable the department to determine the usefulness of the cameras in the long term.
“The BPPA also believes that this pilot program will showcase, to all of the citizens of Boston, the fine work that our members do on a day-to-day basis,” he said in a statement.