Police body camera program faces questions

May 6, 2016
By

By Seth Daniel

Special to the Gazette

Members of the City Council have held hearings all over the city the past week to field concerns and comments regarding the police body camera program that will begin in all neighborhoods this summer, and the leader of that effort now says she has doubts as to whether serious issues can be ironed out before the June rollout.

“I am a lawyer by training and I see a lot of legal questions that have been brought up; we have a wiretap law on the books,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell, of Mattapan, chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee. “After meeting with the public, I have begun to think that this might take a little more time than we thought…It brought up a whole lot of other issues that were brought up and the cameras were just one part – one tool. It all makes me think we have a lot of things to talk about.”

Meetings took place last week in Roslindale, Charlestown, and Dorchester, and a public hearing at City Hall was slated for Wednesday, May 4, at 4 p.m. – after the Gazette deadline.

The Boston Police Body Worn Camera Pilot program will start in the summer of 2016 with 100 cameras worn by 100 volunteer officers in areas all over the city. The pilot will take place for six months, at which time it is expected that the results will be analyzed and shared with the public in consideration of extending the program to all officers citywide.

During the pilot, two vendors will be chosen to compare technology and storage options. A Request for Proposals (RFP) for the program is now being publicly advertised by the Boston Police.

Boston Police have grave concerns, but they aren’t fighting the idea just yet. At the moment, the membership of the various police unions are talking about the cameras and developing a stance on them.

Council Public Safety Chair Andrea Campbell hosted the Charlestown meeting Tuesday night, April 26, with City Councilor Sal LaMattina, City Councilor Anissa Essaibi George and Northeastern professor Jack McDevitt – chair of the City’s Social Justice Committee. The meeting was meant for residents of all the downtown neighborhoods.

“Initially, the cameras were going to be only in certain parts of the city, but the Social Justice Committee didn’t want the cameras to just be in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan,” said Campbell. “If we’re going to get this done the right way, we need to roll it out in every area. We didn’t want it to be just those three neighborhoods. It’s important we get the story on every neighborhood. That’s why we’re in Charlestown tonight.”

Councilor Sal LaMattina, who represents East Boston, North End, and Charlestown, said he is listening to all concerns and all ideas. He said he is undecided on the issue, and enjoys a great relationship with the police in his district.

“I am undecided on this, but I’m glad the Police Commissioner wants to do this pilot program,” he said. “I’m here to listen and I think it will be good this summer for the police and the public.”

So far, the City has no policy on the body cameras, and the Boston Police are currently working on that policy. At this point, the Council community meetings are serving as a sounding board for the public to possibly mold that policy.

One key question is about privacy. For instance, if a police officer is called to a home with the cameras rolling and gets consent to film inside, will that be available to the public? Also, if someone gives a confidential tip to a police officer regarding a serious crime like murder while the body camera is on, is that available?

“If someone were to come up and give police information on a homicide, should that person be filmed?” asked McDevitt. “If police come into a home and film children or a domestic situation, should that be on film? What is the expectation of privacy? Our understanding is most of the footage from these cameras will be accessible by a Freedom of Information Act request. If someone wants that information about you, they’ll be able to get it. That’s a challenge we’ll be faced with.”

Already, the police have said they will not film undercover officers, some Gang Unit officers, intimate partner violence, child crimes, and rape/sexual assault cases.

Beyond that are the issues of police privacy, such as when can they turn off the cameras. Some believe that police should be able to turn off the cameras when they use the bathroom, take breaks, eat meals, or field personal calls.

However, many of the public meetings so far have the public favoring more of that type of filming.

“They are a public servant,” said Curtis Rollins at Tuesday’s meeting. “There are things they have to expect when they sign up to be a police officer.”

Two key worries about the pilot program are the use of volunteers, and the fact that Mayor Martin Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans aren’t exactly in favor of body cameras.

Volunteers have to be used, Campbell said, because it would violate the police contract if officers were forced to wear cameras.

“We can’t make it mandatory now without bargaining with the unions,” she said. “It was determined by the mayor and the commissioner they want to do a pilot program. Because we haven’t negotiated with police unions, we have to make it voluntary because it is a change in working conditions.”

Some worry that the volunteers won’t be the officers that need to have accountability measures in place, such as cameras, and that only the best officers with exemplary records will volunteer.

One Charlestown resident said she wasn’t sure how serious the pilot program was given that the mayor and commissioner don’t see the need for cameras.

“We can have all these wonderful conversations, but I don’t think there’s buy in from the mayor and I don’t think there’s buy in from the Boston Police when you have the commissioner saying you don’t need cameras,” said Whitney Taylor.

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