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Boston police commissioner: Not opposed to body cameras, but doesn't want to be rushed into them

Segun Idowu of Boston Police Camera Action Team

Segun Idowu of Boston Police Camera Action Team pauses for a thought during testimony.

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told a City Council committee today he wants to learn from the mistakes of other cities with body cameras before equipping Boston police officers with them.

"We have never said no to body cameras," Evans said. "I want to go slowly, I want to go methodically, I want to get it right."

Supporters of a proposed ordinance that would require body cameras, however, said they are worried Boston will wait too long and be caught up in the sort of unfortunate incident that has happened in other cities.

Segun Idowu of Mattapan, one of the organizers of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, said that Boston is only fooling itself if it thinks Boston will never have an incident, unless one believes "Boston is of course chosen by God and devoid of sin." He said there were 369 formal complaints against BPD officers in 2013.

"We come to you today in order be rationaly proactive rather than virulently reactive," he said. "How much longer must we decide to be the most progressive city in name only?"

Councilor Tito Jackson (Roxbury) said he doesn't understand the hesitancy to move quickly and set up a pilot program, since BPD is known as a leader. "We are a leading technology state, we are a leading technology city," he said, adding, "every single city in America is one incident away."

"This is not an affront to the police department, this helps to make us better," he said, pushing Evans to set a specific date.

But Evans said there are just too many constitutional and cost questions for that.

"There is no case law on going into someone's house and keeping that camera on," as one example, he said.

Evans and Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross said that among their concerns: People who do now help police would be reluctant to approach a cop if they knew a camera was running. Rose said the proposed ordinance would let people ask to have cameras turned off in such cases.

Evans said that in addition to the estimated $3 million cost of buying the camera, the city would be looking at $2.5 million a year for maintenance - and that doesn't include hiring new staff to run the system and maintain the data.

Idowu said that, if anything, body cameras would save the city money, by reducing lawsuits. He said Boston has paid out $41 million over the past 10 years as settlements of suits against police. And the savings from that could be put towards the community centers and parks and "your ice cream trucks," he told Evans, referring to the Hoodsie-cup truck BPD runs in the summer.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which also supports the ordinance, agreed it could help police. "You can't rely on Burger King videos to do that work for us," she said, referring to the surveillance video in the Roslindale case.

Rose said the federal government has grant programs that would help pay for the cameras.

Councilor Charles Yancey (Dorchester), who is the formal proponent of the measure, said cameras would work both ways: They would reduce baseless accusations against police. He pointed to the death of Angelo West on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury and of Usaama Rahim on Washington Street in Roslindale actually show the potential benefit of body cameras - surveillance video exonerated the officers involved.

"Putting a device on somebody's lapel is not going to solve the historically bad relationship between the African-American community and the police," Evans said. He said gaining trust takes programs such as having officers talk to kids in schools, in camps, playing against them in tournaments and, yes, running ice-cream trucks. He noted Boston Police officers attended 12 "Night Outs" over the past couple of days.

Evans expressed some irritation at the ACLU's insistence on body cameras. "I love the ACLU, but they won't let us put cameras on buildings ... they won't let us have them at protests," he said. "Some of this is very hypocritical."

Under the proposed ordinance, people approached by police could ask the cameras be turned off. If not, the video would be saved for six months - unless flagged by the person or officer involved, in which case it would be retained for three years, Idowu said. Unlike in other states, the video would not be made public, he said.

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Comments

The commissioner was kind of unclear, didn't really seem like he'd read the ordinance, nor did some of the councilors.

Chief Gross also opened his statement by saying that he didn't recognize a lot of the people in the room, so they weren't really members of their communities. That seemed kind of absurd and dismissive. He then left the chamber to talk to reporters outside when public testimony started, after insisting that he wanted to hear the people.

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They didn't read it - they got the revise proposal 45 minutes into the hearing

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Evans is dragging his feet.

Walsh is enabling Evans.

Linehan mocked the idea-- camera? why not implement robocop?

Evans and Walsh said they were considering running a pilot last December, that's 8 months ago, and no action and no update on when action might occur.

Maybe Evans isn't up to the job. I thought he was good but this procrastinate forever stuff doesn't cut it.

  • DOJ issued police body camera guidelines for departments deciding whether to implement them last September.
  • Worcester, Springfield, Methuen, Abington and Gill are all piloting police body cams.
  • Mass. Police Chiefs Association approved their use
  • NY, L.A., Chicago, Phila., Seattle and D.C. have all launched police body camera pilot programs.

If I'm Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey I ask Commissioner Evans to submit a schedule of the issues he wants to resolve before starting a pilot and his pilot plan.

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If he sees strangers claiming to be part or a 'committee', he asked a legit question. Who are these people?

When incidents have happened in other cities where rioting and vioence has occurred, community members and law enforcement spoke of 'outsiders' deliberately provoking unrest. Legit questions, and there's a clear pattern across the country.

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Chief Gross was off base and out of line with his insinuation that if he hasn't seen you before then you aren't really part of the community. There are approximately 647,000 residents of Boston, does he really believe he knows every single one of them? In addition, making a comment like that to a crowd of mostly people of color is borderline offensive. Is he trying to claim the police are more likely to know all the people of color in our communities? Completely ridiculous!

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Some people have this fantasy that the cameras will be running constantly. That is a fantasy. The proposal allows the police officers to turn on and off the cameras at their discretion.

I also don't think the cameras will change anything. The situation will be the same. What the cameras will show is a lot of the people claiming to be the "victim" actually antagonize or assault the police. Our officers will be in the same situation. The public will now be forced to consider how does one confront a violent criminal.

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You fail to realize how that's actually a good thing for police.

I haven't heard of such a toggle on/off for the cameras, though. That seems to defeat the purpose of it all: transparency. I know body cameras aren't the be-all-end-all of justice, but they're an appropriate, or at least logical next step to consider. In the instance where they are always activated, it sure does a hell of a lot of good if police decide to use excessive force. Call me a healthy skeptic if you'd like, but given general distrust of police from a not insignificant amount of people, that can go a long way.

Not perfect, but like I said, perfectly logical to consider it, or run some sort of pilot program.

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The largest storage / battery capacity body camera on market is 36 hours (64 GB), others are less (32 GB). Obviously this storage capacity may grow quickly, but I don't think the battery can last the full 36 hour record time. Remember, this is something a person is wearing.

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The arguments against body-cameras are all describable as "the perfect is the enemy of the good".

Will body cameras be perfect? Of course not. But video cameras are not rocket science - it's technology that the public uses day-to-day and is familiar with, and it's something the public wants.

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Body cameras sound good in theory but this is the reality : it may catch the occasional cop being a criminal, like the recent case where the detective threatened the motorist in Medford (?), and it may exonerate a cop like the recent case where the professor accused the police officer of racial profiling on a traffic stop. But it will negatively change the way the police treat everyday citizens commiting minor infractions, especially in the urban community. Boston Police in the inner city , for the most part, don't arrest people for minor offenses such as license violations and minor warrants, especially when it doesn't benefit the community. They use their discretion. If you want to see a bunch of robocops arresting a guy in front of his kids because he has a suspended license due to child support accruments or a traffic warrant, then put a body camera on him/her and take away their discretion. And if that happens, arrests will inevitably increase and community relations will suffer.

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Under the Soviet system, laws were written so that pretty much anybody was in violation of dozens of laws at any given time, but the police exercised an enormous amount of discretion and hardly ever arrested anyone for violating most laws... until, of course, someone in power wanted you gone, at which point you were hauled off to jail.

That's not the system I want to live under. I want the laws to be sane and for the police to enforce the laws vigorously. If vigorous enforcement means that people who shouldn't be arrested are getting arrested, then the solution is not to tell the police to use more discretion and be more lenient; it's to change the laws.

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A lot of it has to do with the right of arrest. Disturbing the peace is a good example. The right of arrest for someone disturbing the peace, is to arrest in presence if there is a breach of the peace. This means the officer has to witness the disturbance, and it actually has to be a disturbance, where someone is disturbed. There's your first issue. A human being has to decide what's a disturbance or not, and that human being (the cop) has to take into consideration the decision of the person who was actually disturbed (the original caller)

The second issue is whether to arrest or not. Again, a human being has to decide whether the disturbance is bad enough. The suspect could also be summonsed, or put in for a probable cause hearing. Or the officer could simply tell the suspect to please stop, as he is annoying other people.

The third issue is whether or not the disturbance happens a second time after the cops leave? Do you arrest or bring charges then? What was the disturbance ? Was it someone yelling in the street at his neighbor at 3am, or was it someone watching a movie in their house with a nice home theater system with thin walls? Or was it someone doing it at 10am and his neighbor works nights and needs to sleep at 10am, what is unreasonable to not disturb then?

Another issue is what happens is the suspect refuses to give his name for a minor disturbance, or simply doesn't seem to be telling the truth about who he his because he is wanted for some felony warrant. Does the cop get a free pass if he is caught on camera letting the wanted bank robber go because he didn't want to press the issue over a minor disturbance?

The above doesn't have much to do with body cams, but kind of shoes you how "discretion" is such a complex issue.

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I always appreciate your well-explained takes on the reality of law enforcement practice.

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Trying to draw a comparison between current community policing efforts in Boston with Cold War era soviet policing tactics is a bizarre analogy.

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We do have laws (more appropriately called "standards") that require the use of discretion (classic example would be disturbing the peace). We also have black and white laws (more appropriately called "rules") that are enforced (or not enforced) based on the discretion of the law enforcement officer (classic example would be speeding).

How does your post address Bob's point that discretion is open to abuse?
Discretion is sometimes good. We need to have trustworthy people exercising discretion.

Body cams may provide us with the ability to examine the use of discretion by our public servants.

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of laws instead of wide discretion (and he used an example of Soviet law enforcement to make the point). I think our legal system has set up discretion in a way that would hinder his preferred type of enforcement system.

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That was a dashboard cam owned and operated by the cop's victim, not a body cam worn by the cop.

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I can't imagine that body cameras would be adopted with a policy that didn't allow for officer discretion. Most places where they've been used or proposed, no human ever sees the recorded video unless either the cop or someone they interacted with asks for it to be pulled. Otherwise, it just gets archived, both to allow discretion and simply because nobody's going to get paid to watch all those untold hours of boring video.

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It's kind of creepy - like the google glasses. I don't want to be recorded every second I'm in a public place.

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We already have too many creepy cameras. Don't add additional mobile cameras.

And I'm much less likely to approach a police officer with info if they've got a camera. I'm not the only one.

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The city already runs hundreds (thousands?) of cameras in public places. The T has an extensive surveillance and recording system. Most businesses have several cameras with at least one aimed outside the shop.

Chances are that if you're on a commercial street in Boston you're on at least one public or private camera.

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You're already being recorded every second you're in a public place

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You know that Google Glass doesn't always record, right? It doesn't have a lot of storage space, so the user is limited to photos or a few short videos. And they have to trigger the camera, which is pretty obvious. Like, they have to swipe and tap their temple a bunch of times, or say "OK Glass, take a picture" out loud.

(I still say that the first version of Glass shouldn't have had a camera at all. People lost their minds over faulty assumptions that it was always recording and missed out on the interesting potential of a tiny heads-up display.)

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During the hearing the Commissioner repeatedly stated the BPD were looking into "studies" regarding the use of body cameras and dash cams and whether they are effective or not. When pressed to provide specific information regarding the studies, how long they've been conducted and how long it will take for them to be completed, the Commissioner couldn't provide a straight answer. One minute he says BPD is conducting the "studies", the next minute he claims he's looking into "studies" being conducted by other departments. The fact that he can't provide a timetable of when the studies are to be completed so he can review the data and make a recommendation speaks to an evident fact.

Commissioner Evans does not want Body Cameras. There is no open minded approach to this, just straight up defensive rhetoric. The City Council should not let him off the hook on this one.

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If I have a negative interaction with a cop, like say he gives me a shot in the ribs during a stop-n-frisk, or calls me a racist name, or whatever, what good is a body camera going to do? Along with many positive ones, I've had a few ugly interactions with cops in Boston and elsewhere, and the bad ones never identify themselves. If you can't get a name or badge number, how are you supposed to get a look at the video?

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If the law enforcement officer knows that they are being recorded, they will behave better since there is a chance that whatever they do or say will come back to bite them in the ass.

Conversely, complains against law enforcement officers might decline since a record of the interaction with the cop will be recorded, meaning that if a member of the public wants to file a complaint because they were treated like less than a special snowflake (think that whole thing at IKEA last week-end and the comment about the Stoughton PD or any incident involving someone drunk), the video of the incident might end up making them look worse than the cop.

But yeah, without a name or badge number, you could still end up peeing blood, but hopefully the cop will think first with the camera on.

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That's a surprise! I can see it now more officers would get caught in a lie or get into trouble for their unprofessional conduct, etc.

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