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Boston police commissioner says his command staff will wear body cameras

Boston, MA - 9/6/2016 - Members of the Boston Police Department listened to the proceedings during the body camera hearing at Suffolk Superior Court.
Boston, MA - 9/6/2016 - Members of the Boston Police Department listened to the proceedings during the body camera hearing at Suffolk Superior Court. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/File/Globe Staff

Members of the Boston police command staff will begin wearing body cameras next week, Police Commissioner William B. Evans announced Thursday, deciding to lead by example amid a labor dispute over whether rank and file officers should wear the devices.

The move, which affects Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross and seven deputies, came as a Suffolk Superior Court judge is set to decide by noon Friday whether the city violated a collective bargaining agreement when it assigned 100 officers to wear the body cameras in a pilot program.

No officers have volunteered for the six-month trial, and Evans said in a statement that he approached his command staff with the idea “to further demonstrate the department’s support for those officers assigned to the pilot program.”

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The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the city’s largest police union, lauded the move.

“The BPPA has always stated that the department should lead by example,” union president Patrick Rose said in a statement. “We believe that the commissioner and his staff have made a positive move forward with this display of leadership by doing what other cities have done in wearing body cameras.”

Advocates for the police use of body cameras said they are concerned that the command staff’s use of the devices is mostly symbolic, because top officials are not on the streets as much as patrol officers.

The goal, they say, is to capture and reduce the number of confrontations between the police and the public.

“I guess it’s too little, too late,” said Segun Idowu, co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, a community group advocating for the devices. “I don’t see how it makes a difference. It defeats the purpose of what the city is arguing for.”

In a notice to the entire department, Evans said, “These command staff members are out on the street on a daily basis, frequently responding to major incidents in the city.”

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Those participating are Gross and Deputy Superintendents Bernard O’Rourke, Randall Halstead, Dennis White, Colm Lydon, Nora Baston, William Ridge, and Joseph Harris. Evans will not wear a body camera.

Evans said in a statement that the eight commanders oversee “the delivery of uniformed police services to the neighborhoods of the city.”

In his notice, Evans said the command staff will join the patrol officers in wearing the cameras when the pilot begins Monday. The program was set to start Sept. 2, but was delayed following the union’s lawsuit.

The command staff members will follow the same policy for the devices as the officers assigned to wear them, but they will be part of the study group. For example, the cameras would be activated in the course of an officer’s official duties to record interactions with the public, such as vehicle stops, searches of a suspect before an arrest, and dispatched calls for service that involve contact with the public.

In a statement, the department said that “having these eight command staff members leading by example will serve to improve transparency and accountability and evidences [Evan’s] commitment to getting the pilot program underway.”

Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston, one of the command staff members who will participate in the program, said she looks forward to the pilot.

“I actually wanted to wear it,” Baston said Thursday night during a community walk in Hyde Park.

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She said the cameras will demonstrate that the department has “a really good relationship with the community. . . . I can’t wait to see people’s reaction. We’re going to be talking about, ‘what was the big issue?’ ”

Baston declined to comment on the union dispute but said it will not be difficult to adjust to the technology.

“I don’t think anything’s going to change,” she said. “It’s something the community wants.”

At the conclusion of a two-day hearing ending Wednesday, attorney John Becker, representing the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said rank-and-file officers declined to volunteer because they sensed reluctance about the program from administrators.

Evans testified in court that he had been somewhat reluctant about body cameras, but soon realized their value after video helped cool emotions in the community following three police-involved shootings.

Evans said during cross-examination that video “bailed us out of a very heated situation. I really see the positives.”

But Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College, said the command staff’s gesture probably won’t resonate as Evans may have intended.

“It’s rich in symbolism and certainly effective for the police administration to lead by example, but I don’t think the rank-and-file and the detectives will see it that way.”

Nolan said the command staff do not respond to 911 calls and are not on the front lines like patrol officers.They are usually at community meetings and occasionally responding to serious crimes, and not in situations where they are likely to be accused of wrongdoing.

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“There’s so many unanswered questions and what-ifs,” he said.

Idowu and Carlton Williams, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said it should not have been the administration to step up, but the union’s leaders.

“Good leadership takes courage and I think this shows good leadership,” Williams said. “Hopefully, union president Rose could take the same example and show some good leadership since he was in such support of body cameras as he and the city agreed to it.”

In court, the city’s attorney accused the union of breaching an agreement reached with the city in July by discouraging participation in the program. One notice at a police station warned: “Sanction any officer who volunteers.”

Rose has said he told officers not to volunteer until an agreement is reached.

In his memo to the department, Evans wrote, “You continue to showcase the department as a national leader in community policing.”


Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com.