Police Commissioner William B. Evans wants to require police officers to begin wearing name tags, following the practice of many major police departments across the country, but the leader of the city’s largest police union says the move would be “unnecessary.’’
Requiring Boston police to wear name tags, ubiquitous uniform accessories worn by doctors, firefighters, restaurant workers, and flight attendants, would reverse decades-long practice in Boston.
Evans said this week that the change would make the department and its officers more transparent.
“The public should know our names,” Evans said during an interview on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio this week.
The commissioner said he is hopeful he can reach an agreement with the city’s police unions, but the leader of the city’s largest police union warned that the identification could put officers at risk.
“It makes them targets for miscreants,” said Patrick Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrol Association.
Evans’s push for name tags became public a week after a battle between the union and the department over body cameras. The union asked a Suffolk Superior Court judge to delay the launch of a body camera pilot program, arguing that Evans violated the union’s collective bargaining rights in selecting 100 officers to wear the cameras after none volunteered. The judge sided with Evans, and officers began wearing body cameras on Sept. 12.
Evans would not comment for this story, but a police spokesman, Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy, said the department has been working with the patrolmen’s association and the Boston Police Detective Benevolent Society, the detective’s union, toward an agreement. Command staff and superior officers have already begun wearing tags with their last names, McCarthy said.
“The commissioner began this process earlier this year as a way to increase transparency and trust,” McCarthy said in a statement.
In August, the city’s three police unions fired off a controversial letter to Evans and Mayor Martin J. Walsh listing demands that included removing the names and addresses of officers from public documents.
Rose said he knows of an officer who became the subject of a cyberattack — someone set up a fake website using her name — after a person obtained her name from a police report. A name tag would facilitate similar attacks, Rose said, referring to hacker groups such as Anonymous that have released information about government officials including names of police officers involved in shootings.
“In today’s world there [are] different threats that police officers are up against,” Rose said. “We’re not trying to fight the system. There’s a system in place that identifies us. Every single person wears a badge.”
Those badges have numbers that identify the officers, as required by state law, and Rose said that officers will provide their names if asked.
But community leaders say that it would be easier for people to remember a name instead of a number, and argue that name tags would further strengthen the department’s relationship with the community.
“An officer is not just a number, but a person,” said J. Larry Mayes, one of three members of the Civilian Oversight Ombudsman Panel, which reviews Internal Affairs investigations. Knowing an officer’s name “makes that individual more human. It humanizes a situation.”
Patrol officers in other major police departments, including New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles, have worn name tags for decades. Massachusetts state troopers also wear name tags.
“Most police departments require officers to wear a name tag, some with badge numbers,” said Peter K. Manning, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University.
Manning said name tags make it easier for the public to identify officers and raise questions about an incident.
“This seems like a reasonable thing for the commissioner to look into,” Manning said. “Boston in many ways is conservative in part because the union is very strong and [challenges to] changes in procedure are almost always generally strong.”
Mark K. Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said he understands the union’s concerns. He knows of police officers who have been followed home by gang members, he said. Asked how many departments require name tags, Leahy couldn’t provide a number, but said “there’s a mix across the Commonwealth.”
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, said that while he understands that the Internet has made it easy to identify and target people, the public should be able to easily find out a patrol officer’s name.
“While [the union] has legitimate concerns,” Wexler said, “the public’s right to know trumps that.”
After a series of police-involved shootings of black men, including two this week in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C., police departments have come under heightened scrutiny and public demands for greater transparency.
“This is the business of increased accountability,” Wexler said. “It’s probably not the right business if you want to remain anonymous.”