Boston police commissioner says union sent harmful message by fighting body camera program

 A detail shot last month of a Methuen police officer's body camera as he writes a citation.
A detailed shot last month of a Methuen police officer's body camera as he writes a citation. –Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans says the fight with city’s police union over a body camera pilot program hurt the department’s image.

“It sent the message that we’re hiding something,” Evans said Tuesday in an interview on WGBH News’s Greater Boston with Jim Braude, one day after the launch of the repeatedly delayed program.

“The longer we were fighting it, the more people think that we’re doing some bad things out there,” he said.

The pilot program, which equips 100 rank-and-file Boston police officers with body cameras, officially hit the streets Monday, in an effort to assess whether the cameras could improve community relations.

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But it was not without a certain degree of legal hassling.

The officers’ union, Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, originally agreed to a voluntary program. Yet when no officers volunteered, the department announced it would randomly select the 100 participants. In response, the union sued. But last week, a judge ruled that BPD has the authority to order the officers to wear cameras.

“It wasn’t personal; it was business,” Evans said Tuesday. “It was something the community wanted, it was something Mayor [Marty] Walsh wanted, and all we’re asking here was for a pilot to look at the pros and cons.”

A study in Orlando found that body cameras result in less use of force incidents and complaints, and that by the end of the study officers wanted to keep them.

“You’re naive to not pay attention to what’s going on across the country,” Evans said. “It’s going to be a necessary part of policing.”

Evans said the delays were “difficult” and expressed frustration with union leadership, which he said he believed was in “a different place than cops on the beat.”

After last week’s ruling, BPPA President Pat Rose said in a statement that the union was disappointed in the decision, but felt it was necessary to “challenge the City when they violate signed agreements.”

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“I believe what we are going to find is that the body-worn cameras will highlight the good work that is done by the members of the BPPA every day to protect and serve the people who live, work, and visit the City of Boston,” Rose said.

Evans acknowledged the department wasn’t perfect, but said he thinks they’re “doing great.” A poll in July found that 73 percent of residents view Boston police favorably, though a gap emerged between white and black residents (82 percent versus 65 percent) with a favorable view of the department.

As for the launch, Evans said officers had recorded “a couple interactions.”

“It’s a new technology and change doesn’t come easy to any organization,” he said.

The program requires the 100 officers to wear the cameras and keep them on throughout interactions with civilians. As Braude noted, the policy also requires officers to gain permission to film inside private residence, unless they have a warrant.

Following the six month program, Dr. Anthony Braga, the head of Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, will analyze how the body cameras affect community relations, complaints, and use of force incidents, as WBUR reported in a useful explainer Monday.

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