Almost 70 percent of police departments install GPS tracking devices in their vehicles, according to a recent survey by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum. There is ample reason for it, including the safety of the officers themselves. With GPS, for example, dispatchers are better able to locate and summon aid for an incapacitated officer. But the overwhelming advantage to public safety would come with the ability of dispatchers to identify the police responders closest to a crime scene, rather than depending on officers’ radio responses.
There is no legitimate reason for opposition to this routine fleet management tool, which is the one significant reform included in the labor arbitrator's award of a Boston Police Patrolmen's Association contract that includes 25.4 percent raises over six years. That contract is still awaiting action by the Boston City Council. While the patrolmen overall support the award, some officers express fear that the tracking devices will strip them of the discretion needed to perform their jobs. It's certainly true that GPS would provide police supervisors with an effective management tool to ensure that officers are patrolling within their assigned sectors. But that's a positive outcome, too, as long as the supervisors understand that the nature of the work often requires flexibility. Given that most of them were once patrolmen themselves, there should be little worry of supervisors keeping officers on a too-short leash.
Shortly before he resigned, former police commissioner Edward Davis made clear that officers would have ample opportunity to explain their whereabouts should questions arise based on GPS tracking data. It's a safe bet, as well, that Mayor-elect Martin Walsh will appoint a new commissioner with the ability to discriminate between legitimate police business and unauthorized breaks.
Instead of sparring over the use of GPS in police cruisers, the patrol officers and police managers should be discussing how to protect the public through better use of technology. One promising method used elsewhere, including Camden, N.J., maximizes patrol efficiency by synching GPS devices in police cars with computer data on criminal "hot spots."
As early as Wednesday, the City Council could take up the issue of the controversial police contract. If approved, it would cost taxpayers more than $80 million over six years. That is more than enough reason to send the parties back to the negotiation table. But the one area of the contract that requires no backpedaling is the insistence on GPS tracking devices in police vehicles.