I’m stepping into big shoes as I write my first Free Radical column, which has been helmed by the whip-smart and wonderful Emily Hopkins until now. But I’m also humbled to be allowed access to this space to share my buzzkill tendencies and unpopular opinions. So why not start by taking on the Boston Police Department and its reluctance to join the 21st century by adopting body cameras?
The BPD body camera pilot program has been “happening” for what seems like forever. The launch date was pushed back from April to May, and then again (for now) to June. Police Commissioner William Evans has been quoted as saying that he hopes the pilot program will prove that it’s not needed here. But methinks thou doth protest too much, and so does Segun Idowu, co-organizer for the Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT). “If officers are really good at their jobs and they are ‘a class act,’ like Evans insists, then what do they have to hide?” Idowu asked me in a phone interview.
And that is the question, isn’t it? For a police department that prides itself on its good relationships with the community (which is downright laughable in reality), why wouldn’t they be open to doing something that could improve trust and relations between the department and Boston residents? And for a city that considers itself to be a hub of innovation, it’s suspicious that Boston remains one of only four of the 25 largest U.S. cities that have yet to adopt a police body camera program.
Not only that, but as the city prepares to roll this pilot program out, they’ve deliberately avoided the community members who want to help them get it right. BPCAT activists, who have released reports on body cameras and written an entirely comprehensive policy, have yet to sit down with anyone from the police department or the mayor’s office, despite numerous attempts, Idowu tells me. This means that the body camera pilot program has been created without the input or approval from the voices in the community who know the most about the issue.
Despite Evans’ insistence that Boston police officers will prove themselves to not need body cameras, he’s ignoring a ton of evidence that proves that body cameras improve police and community relations, and also reduce incidents of police misuse of force as well as complaints of officer misconduct. The commissioner is also ignoring the research that’s been released locally in which the ACLU of Massachusetts found that BPD racially profiles black and brown residents with its stop and frisk policy. There are also police-involved killings to consider; according to the Mapping Police Violence Project, which pulls from three databases of police shootings, between January 2013 and March 2016, Boston police fatally shot seven people, all of whom happened to be black or Latino.
With the community meetings that happened at the end of April and the City Council hearing that took place during the first week of May, the public is finally getting a chance to weigh in, even if activists haven’t been able to get their own voices heard by the establishment. Whether or not Evans and the BPD likes it, a body camera program will be coming to Boston. It’s on them whether they choose to embrace the new tool for what it is—something to provide greater accountability and protections for both community members and police officers, if they really are behaving in line with protocol—or fight it every step of the way.
Allowing activists and community members to have a say in what the policy looks like would be a good faith move on behalf of the police department to show that they are committed to doing what’s best for the residents of this city. But, of course, that means they’d actually have to want to be committed to that in the first place.
Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Copyright 2016 Britni de la Cretaz. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.