When cameras worn by police aren’t rolling, the public and the courts lose a powerful tool to piece together the truth — and officers lose a way to defend themselves against false accusations. That’s why the Walsh administration needs to fix the glaring loophole in its rollout of body-worn cameras in Boston.
At the start of December, more than a thousand Boston police officers were wearing body cameras. Yet there was a glitch in the department’s rollout: Patrolmen who are issued cameras aren’t required to use them during overtime assignments — and those assignments can include major events like street demonstrations, which are ripe for confrontations between police and residents.
In one sense, the city should be commended for its progress with the body-worn camera rollout, which now includes most of the officers who hit the city’s streets on regular patrols — especially given that the department had to pay a stipend to get “volunteers” to participate in an earlier pilot project. But the overtime “rule” creates a giant loophole in situations where the cameras are needed most.
How that loophole got there remains something of a mystery. But two things are certain: It should not be allowed to remain in perpetuity, and City Hall must not permit it to be used as yet another bargaining chip by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association in ongoing contract talks.
Body cameras are far more than just another bit of trendy policing technology. In an age when everyone walks around with a cellphone capable of capturing a moment, a confrontation, or a police take-down, police body cameras can provide evidence that will be admissible in court. That’s likely why more than half the nation’s police departments and nearly all major city police departments now use them.
Since June, the city has trained some 1,055 officers in body-camera use, according to a police spokesman. That includes just about every district patrol officer in the city and those in the Youth Violence Strike Force. Others in such specialized units as the K-9 patrol, harbor patrol, and bomb squad are due for training in the coming month or so.
The protocol issued by the commissioner last June runs 12 pages and deals with just about every contingency for when the cameras need to be on and when it’s appropriate to tell parties they are being recorded. In general it advises, “When performing any patrol function, as determined by the Police Commissioner, officers must wear and activate BWCs according to Department policy.”
Nowhere in those 12 pages does it refer to an exemption for overtime. That only appears in a press release that says, “Officers performing a paid detail or working overtime” are exempt from the requirement.
The press release notes, “These circumstances are based off camera battery life.”
Of course, other departments — Philadelphia, for example — have no such exemption for overtime. Surely they must have found a solution to extend what is actually 12 to 13 hours of battery life.
And the battery life explanation, of course, fails to make any sense in the case of officers called in on a day off — as many were during the August “Straight Pride” parade. During that event, police logged some 9,000 hours of overtime and made 36 arrests — some of them rather contentious when they got to court. But the overtime “rule” applied, and no video was captured by police body cameras.
Police union officials know that the images captured can be useful to their members. “It will aid in preventing false and frivolous claims,” BPPA President Michael F. Leary wrote last spring in the union newsletter. He also wrote, “We are battling for the best financial package possible and the best contract language we can get.”
Ah, well, that would indeed explain a lot. It would also explain the reluctance of this labor-friendly mayor to push back.
The Walsh administration should act now to close this loophole. This is about better policing and about public safety. That doesn’t change when police overtime kicks in. And it certainly shouldn’t wait until the next police contract kicks in either.