Make police body cams happen in Boston
‘It’s gonna happen.”
That’s what Commissioner Williams B. Evans said about outfitting Boston police officers with body-worn cameras last September. Nearly one year later, not a single camera has been deployed. As of Aug. 1, no officers had volunteered to participate. The department says it is assigning officers to wear the cameras, and that the program will begin in September.
That reflects a troubling lack of respect for transparency from those on the thin blue line and shows an equally troubling lack of leadership from the elected officials who oversee it. Resistance to police-worn cameras will not age well — especially when phone-wielding citizens are taking the documentation of police conduct into their own hands.
Police departments in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and New York City have already implemented police camera programs. The devices lead to improved documentation of evidence, and they increase accountability and transparency, according to extensive research.
The key is to get the rules of body camera deployment right. Boston’s camera policy, released last month, raises several questions. For example, police wearing the devices will be allowed to view footage of an incident before writing their own reports.
At a city council hearing earlier this month, Evans defended that type of review by citing the head of the Police Executive Research Forum, Chuck Wexler, who recommended the practice two years ago. But research has shown that watching video can — obviously
Another issue with the Boston policy is the lack of explicit sanctions for officers who violate it. This isn’t a hypothetical problem. An officer in Chicago, for instance, recently shot an unarmed teenager but didn’t have his body camera turned on.
A firmer slap in the face is the absence of volunteers to participate in the department’s pilot study. Evans admitted as much at the hearing. “It hasn’t been an easy sell,” he said. But the tone is set at the top. Never mind that there is a significant incentive for officers to wear them: a $500 stipend.
Bostonians trust the police. But hardly any city is immune to racial tensions between law enforcement and people of color, particularly if departments are not representative of the communities they serve. As city councilor Tito Jackson rightly put it at the hearing: “Every city in America is one incident away from being a hashtag city.”
Why take that chance?
Left to their own devices, police aren’t going to get it done in a timely manner, as evidenced by how the process has unfolded the past 12 months. It is time for elected leaders to demand immediate action. Cameras are already rolling in the hands of citizens — it is time to require them for the police too.
Make it happen.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated there is no timeline for the Boston Police Department’s body camera pilot program. The department says it is assigning officers to wear the cameras, and training will begin the last week of August. Although no specific date has been decided yet, the department says the program is set to begin in September. In addition, the earlier version of the editorial wrongly described a policy position held by Chuck Wexler, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum. Wexler maintains that police officers should be allowed to watch footage of an incident before writing their report, and that witnesses should also be allowed to watch.