Seeing is believing. We’ve long accepted that bit of basic wisdom.
Cellphone cameras have made a lot of ordinary people critical eyewitnesses to tragedy and to wrongdoing in ways those in law enforcement could never have anticipated. In too many racially charged encounters around the nation, citizen videos have held up a badly needed mirror to police departments.
But today no police department can afford to leave such matters to chance — or to the whim and possible distortion of a camera angle. It’s why police body-worn cameras are becoming the rule in major cities, and why this spring Boston is on a path to join those ranks.
It’s been a long time coming — in part because the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association has done everything it can to avoid or at least delay its implementation, including an unsuccessful lawsuit over the department’s pilot project.
That one-year program involved 100 cameras in five police districts. A study found modest reductions in citizen complaints regarding officer conduct, compared with a control group of officers not fitted with the body cameras (17 compared with 29 for a control group) and in self-reported use of force reports (8 compared with 15 in the control group). The fortunate fact of life in Boston is that the city already has a low rate of both.
Still, no big city police department can rest on its laurels. It’s always the next incident — the one that the department didn’t anticipate — that can set back police-community relations for years to come.
So the Boston Police Department has already begun its rollout of a body cam program that will eventually be citywide, outfitting two precincts, one in South Boston and one in Dorchester. In a meeting with Globe editors and reporters last week, Mayor Marty Walsh said the city has budgeted $2 million for the program this year and $2.5 million next year.
Once again, of course, the BPPA is fighting the move — this time with a labor grievance, seeking among other things a salary boost for those wearing the cameras. BPPA President Michael Leary told Globe reporter Milton Valencia that he thought the city had better uses for the money, like hiring more officers or buying them more equipment — such as more Tasers.
If it comes down to body cams versus Tasers, we think Leary just lost the argument.
Leary called the cameras “the biggest change in working conditions that officers have ever had,” adding, “it’s a completely different way of doing policing.”
Really? Video of police encounters is increasingly the norm, whether it comes from a body cam or another source. Leary seems to be operating in a bygone era, ignoring the incidents, here and elsewhere, in which video footage was available from a surveillance camera or bystander’s cellphone. Video has often been used to convince community leaders that indeed a police-involved shooting was justified; adding body cameras to the mix may actually end up helping officers in such situations.
Of course, the training and protocol for using a body cam is every bit as important as the device itself. Here transparency is the key: activating the camera in a timely fashion when called to the scene of a crime, but also being sensitive to the privacy needs of crime victims, especially victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. And at the same time, respecting those who want to report crimes without being identified.
Nobody said this was going to be easy, or perfect. But to the extent body cams can enhance police credibility and help police build bridges with the communities they serve, it will be worth the effort and the cost. Complacency in policing is no longer an option.