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Boston Police Continue Their Fight Against Body Cameras

How one of the largest police forces in the country has dragged its collective feet over trying out body cameras.

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A body camera, which may never be seen on a Boston police officer at this rate — AFP/Getty Images
Sep 02, 2016 at 9:58 AM ET

Boston is one of the few large cities in America that doesn’t have a police body camera program in place or in the pilot testing phase. The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the union that represents most of Boston’s finest, hopes to keep it that way.

The Boston Police Department had been hesitant to even consider putting body cameras on its officers until very recently: In 2014, Commissioner William Evans said repeatedly that he didn’t think body cameras would solve any problems that might exist between officers and the community. But in September 2015, he announced that a pilot program for the cameras was in the works and officers would be given cameras to test out within a few months. Yet in April 2016, with the program scheduled to begin in May, Evans was saying in interviews that he didn’t think body cameras were necessary because the department was a “class act” (quietly suggesting that other departments that do have body cameras are not, in fact, class acts).

Finally, in July, the BPD announced that an agreement with the union had been reached, clearing the way for the pilot program to begin: 100 officers would wear the cameras for six months and be given a nice little $500 bonus for their efforts. The officers would have to volunteer to wear the cameras.

No officers volunteered — which is either a remarkable coincidence or the result of a collective effort to undermine the program through a deliberately created loophole in the union agreement. City and police officials, their patience gone, said cameras would be randomly assigned if no officers volunteered. The BPPA responded to that by seeking an injunction to stop the program from its scheduled September 2 start date, with BPPA president Patrick Rose saying in a dramatic statement to the Boston Globe that the union “can’t stand by and allow the city to blatantly violate the agreement it signed just over a month ago — we had to act and act quickly to prevent this miscarriage of justice.”

The BPD announced on Wednesday that it will once again delay the start of its body camera pilot program until September 12, which will allow for enough time for a judge to hear and rule on the injunction request. That ruling will either clear the way for the forced body camera pilot program to begin, or send the union and the department back to the negotiating table.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that Boston police officers would resist a recording of their actions; in 2007, Boston police officers arrested a man for filming a violent arrest in Boston Common, saying the man had violated the state’s wiretapping law that prohibits recording audio without both parties’ consent. That man was a lawyer, who promptly filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers for violating his right to free speech. A court of appeals ruled that citizens have the right to film government officials under the First Amendment, a precedent-setting decision that allows for all Americans to film police officers today.

Neither the BPPA nor the BPD responded to request for comment, but Matthew Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts branch of the ACLU, told Vocativ that “civilians, especially those in communities of color, will be harmed if this program is blocked” and the BPPA’s lawsuit is “part of an alarming pattern” of its officers refusing to volunteer for programs that were designed to improve accountability while demanding long guns and body armor for officers in sharply-worded, exclamation-point-filled letters.

“This is a police organization that has seen fit to demand instruments of violence and to block instruments of accountability,” Segal said. “This pattern raises the question whether real police accountability is even possible in Boston.”

The hearing on the BPPA’s injunction request is scheduled for September 6 and 7.