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Boston brass, police union fear body cams on cops

Body cameras could undermine the very community policing tactics they are intended to bolster, top Boston cops say

By O’Ryan Johnson, Erin Smith
Boston Herald

BOSTON — Police body cameras — the supposed silver bullet tool to end all doubt in law enforcement interactions — could undermine the very community policing tactics they are intended to bolster, top Boston cops say.

“No one wants to talk to you if everything is being recorded,” said Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.

“I think if you look around Boston now, there’s cameras everywhere,” Ellison said. “Even when you think people aren’t watching you, they’re watching you. Most businesses you pass by have cameras and a lot of people don’t realize those are pointed at the street.”

Boston police Commissioner William B. Evans questioned the benefit if it comes at the cost of keeping up relationships with people in crime-battered neighborhoods.

“We have a lot of positive we hear, but also are worried about its impact on our relationship with the community,” Evans said. “I fear that a lot of people, and the dialogue we have going, a lot of people might not want to have that interaction with us if they knew they’re on camera or they’re being recorded.”

Evans, Mayor Martin J. Walsh and police union officials say they aren’t opposed to body cams, and are willing to discuss how they might be used in the Hub, as President Obama has begun pushing a national initiative in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting and riots.

In response to continued protests over the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, Obama has pledged matching funds — pending congressional approval — to help pay for body cameras to police departments who want them.

Tom Nolan, criminology professor at Merrimack College and a former Boston police officer, said that as a result of Ferguson, the emphasis has shifted from supplying military equipment to law enforcement to softer community policing approaches and the accountability body cameras might provide.

“I think it’s certainly a shift and I would bet that Darren Wilson wished he had a body camera on him when he encountered Michael Brown, because that would have alleviated a lot of the concerns over the last several months,” Nolan said.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but there needs to be some public discussion. Body cameras, like any kind of technology, is open to manipulation. You can turn it on and off. Any kind of video can be edited,” he said.

Boston Police Superior Officers Union President Jack Kervin said he is willing to discuss the use of cameras, but added, “There’s concerns on both sides. Is someone going to provide you with confidential information that is going to be accessed as a public record?”

Kervin said he is concerned about choking the flow of fresh information police get at crime scenes, which can be vital to putting detectives on the right path while the trail is still fresh. Informants, Kervin said, “want to do the right thing, but they don’t want to jeopardize their position in the community.”

Walsh said he is not opposed to the idea, but he insists not every Boston cop would wear a body cam.

“I’m not going to equip every police officer with a body camera. We have undercover detectives, we have drug detectives. So I’m not going to look at every police officer,” the mayor said. “But certainly myself and Commissioner Evans will have conversations about it, to see how logistically we’d do it.”

Evans and Kervin both pointed out several situations where police and the public may not want cameras on. “Do you have the body camera on when you go to the bathroom,” Kervin asked. “Is it going to be on when two officers are in a cruiser talking about a softball game? Does the officer turn it on when there’s a call? Who controls it? It’s such an evolving issue.”

Copyright 2014 the Boston Herald