Boston police officers collectively worked almost 9,000 hours of overtime during the so-called “Straight Pride” parade — the equivalent of one officer working full-time for more than four years.
Not one minute was captured by Boston police body cameras, according to the department.
That’s because the hundreds of Boston police officers who were assigned to work the day-long event in August were all on overtime and, according to a BPD spokesman, the department only requires officers to wear body cameras during regular shifts.
“I can't think of any reason why a department would not want their officers to wear the cameras if they’re working an overtime assignment, unless battery life is a problem,” said Darrel Stephens, interim executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and the former chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina. “You're trying to provide insight into what takes place during those encounters with citizens, and they continue to take place while they're on overtime or not.”
After WBUR began asking questions about the force’s body camera policies for overtime officers, police spokesman Sgt. Det. John Boyle said Wednesday the department would reconsider its current practices so that officers would be required to wear body cams during all shifts.
Mayor Marty Walsh said Wednesday that body cameras are a “brand new policy” for the city’s police force, and there’s still work to do.
“It’s something that ... [the commissioner and I] will have to have a conversation about, to see how do we handle situations like that, how do we handle parades,” Walsh said. “This is the first time since we’ve instituted the program that we’ve kind of come across this."
In a statement later released by his office, Walsh said body cameras are an “important part of our strategy to support the progress we have made in community policing."
Since launching the body camera program this summer, Boston has equipped roughly half its police force with body cameras. Walsh said he expects every district in the city to be using cameras by the end of this month.
After the “Straight Pride” parade, which resulted in 36 arrests and left four officers injured, WBUR submitted several public records requests to Boston police, including for "use of force" reports, internal investigations or citizen complaints, and body camera footage.
A department spokesman said it received four internal affairs complaints related to the parade that are under review: two focused on use of force by officers; one for an officer refusing to identify him or herself and another for “disrespect.” The department declined to provide the complaints themselves to WBUR.
That records request highlighted the Boston police’s body camera overtime practices, as the department said there was no footage to turn over to reporters.
How Boston Rolled Out Body Cameras
Some Boston officers started wearing body cameras full-time in June, almost two years after a year-long pilot program ended in 2017. Research from the pilot found “small benefits” to using body cameras. Officers outfitted with the cameras received fewer citizen complaints and were the subject of fewer "use of force" reports.
Three months into the department's partial implementation of the body camera policy, on the day of the “Straight Pride” parade, patrol officers in half the city’s 12 districts were wearing body cameras, as well as members of the Youth Violence Strike Force — more commonly known as the “gang unit.” Meanwhile, their colleagues working the parade did not wear cameras as they worked and collected pay for overtime.
Boston resident Segun Idowu, an advocate for body cameras, formed the group Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT) four days after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The group pushed Boston's police department to adopt a body camera program.
Idowu said he has complaints about the city’s rollout of the program — including how difficult it is for those involved in encounters caught on camera to access the footage, and the delay in getting body cameras on all officers. But when it comes to protests or other places where people are exercising their First Amendment rights — like the "Straight Pride" parade — he’s firmly against body cameras on officers. And the policy BPCAT put forward reflected that.
“We did not want the body camera to be another form of surveillance on people who are rightfully protesting against injustice,” Idowu said.
Even in the case of the "Straight Pride" parade, Idowu said privacy still outweighs the need to capture civilian and police interactions.
“I'm sure a lot of people would have loved to have seen footage of what happened via a body camera," he said. "But for us, the larger picture is that we need to protect civilians — their privacy — above all else.”
That said, he thinks police officers working overtime should still wear body cameras, as long as they are not responding to a protest or other First Amendment exercise.
“They don't take away your gun. They don't take away your flashlight. They don't take away any other equipment when you're working back-to-back shifts,” he said. “To me, there's no reason why you shouldn't also have the body camera and following those procedures.”
Other community activists, however, think body cameras need to be on officers at all times, regardless of the event. Monica Cannon-Grant helped organize the large counter-protests at both the “Straight Pride” parade and the 2017 “Free Speech” rally. She said, as an activist with Black Lives Matter, she is already under extra scrutiny during protests and on social media. Body cameras, she said, are a way to keep watch over how police treat activists like her.
“Having on a body camera, it's to make sure that you don't beat the hell out of me or kill me and get away with it,” Cannon-Grant said. “I want you to have it on so that people can understand the level of racism that is spewed by the police department … so that it can be documented.”
“Transparency is necessary,” she continued. “The only thing that has no color is accountability.”
The department’s body camera policy doesn’t say anything specific about officers working overtime or detail shifts not having to wear body cameras. However, a press release announcing the program in May said officers working a paid detail or overtime would not be wearing cameras “as this rollout begins.”
BPD spokesman Boyle said the body camera program should be completely installed in the next few months and that “it’s natural we’re going to experience glitches along the way.”
The union that represents Boston’s police officers, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, fought the body camera policy. BPPA president Michael Leary did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
In the union’s most recent newsletter to members, which mostly focused on body cameras, Leary and other union heads railed against police being forced to use them.
“I hear you all, loud and clear, ‘we do not want body cameras,’” Leary wrote. “I understand, I do not want body cameras either. If there was any legal way to prevent the Body Worn Camera Program from being implemented, we would have done it. Yesterday. But there isn’t.”
Leary added that he does not believe the body camera program is worth the cost to the city.
“I am convinced this program will be the most expensive ‘We told you so’ the City has ever seen, because we all know they are not necessary,” he wrote.
The city expects to spend $8.5 million on the program in the first three years, and $3.3 million each year after that.
Other large departments, like Dallas and Philadelphia, mandate that officers wear body cameras any time they’re on duty, regardless of whether they're working overtime or not. Other police forces, like Chicago, require body cameras for regular overtime shifts, but have flexible policies for large events like the city’s marathon.
Overtime, and big events like the “Straight Pride” parade, aren’t rare in Boston. The nearly 9,000 hours of overtime worked at the “Straight Pride” parade cost close to $600,000. That’s about on par with what Boston police spends on overtime for other big events, like the 2019 Boston Marathon ($800,000), and this year’s Super Bowl championship parade ($480,000).
Those prominent events make up just a fraction of the $31 million Boston police patrolmen earned in overtime pay last year.