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.