With the movement to outfit police officers with body-cams advancing, many departments have encountered pushback from their members. On some forces, resistance has centered on the issue of workers’ rights and a demand that body-cams be collectively bargained as a term of employment.
CHICAGO – As of this week, more than 7,000 of Chicago’s police officers are wearing body cameras while on patrol. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago has the largest number of officers outfitted with the cameras and the department accomplished the task one year ahead of its projected schedule.
That could be good news for a city wracked with charges of corruption for the last couple of years, to go along with poor record-keeping regarding officer-involved shootings. A majority of studies on the effects of body-worn cameras (BWCs) and policing (Orlando, Fl.; Rialto, Ca.; and the U.K. and U.S.) have shown that complaints of police brutality (also known as use-of-force incidents) dropped significantly. Thus far, only one study has stated the opposite.
If it is true, then, that the wearing of cameras can lead to a reduction in antagonistic behavior by police, it would seem that all departments should require their officers to wear body cameras. Unless you factor in police unions; and herein lies a major problem.
In mid-August of 2016 a lawyer for Cincinnati’s police union sent a “cease and desist” letter to the city saying that cops would only wear the body cameras if they were paid to do so:
Requiring employees to wear BWCs will change several aspects of their job and regularly assigned duties,” Lazarus wrote in a letter dated Aug. 11. “The adoption of new BWC policies will also have a significant impact on the employees’ wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. Accordingly such changes are mandatory subjects that must be bargained to impasse with the union before they are implemented.”
660 Cincinnati officers now wear their cameras on patrol. The city and the local Fraternal Order of Police reached an agreement on pay raises in a three-year contract at the end of August 2016. While that contract addressed the issue of wearing body cameras the actual numbers of the pay raises have not been disclosed. The police union says some of its officers are skeptical of the technology, concerned that non-law enforcement viewers of footage may judge them unfairly if an encounter goes wrong.
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Also last year, Boston’s police union took the city to court after the mayor ordered 100 officers to wear cameras as part of a one-year pilot program. After the mayor ordered the officers to participate when none stepped forward voluntarily, the union argued that the city violated its agreement that the program would be voluntary.
After a judge ruled in the city of Boston’s favor, those 100 officers participated in the year-long body camera pilot program, which concluded this past September. The results of the pilot however won’t be available until the middle of 2018.
Police unions have opposed the imposition of body cameras as a labor dispute. The Jacksonville (Florida) Sheriff’s Office was hit with an Unfair Labor Practice complaint in May of this year; so was the City of Seattle in July. According to Steven Zona, president of Jacksonville’s local Fraternal Order of Police, “ … if we [negotiate without collective bargaining], we waive our rights to collectively bargain it forever.”
Labor unions and police rarely end up on the same side. Police violence against working people during the rise of the U.S. labor movement is legendary; numerous studies, books and popular media have covered it. But, although police unions are not affiliated with any umbrella labor organizations, and often resist the “union” label for their associations, they have borrowed heavily from those organizations’ principles. One of which is collective bargaining. According to attorney Damon Kitchen of the Jacksonville law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP,
[P]ublic sector employers with unionized work forces are required by law to collectively bargain with union representatives of police unions over “mandatory subjects of bargaining.” Mandatory subjects of bargaining consist of wages, hours, terms and conditions of the police officers’ employment. … Police unions have argued that the use of body cameras is a mandatory subject of bargaining because use of the cameras is being made a term and condition of employment.”
The Justice Department has provided the funding for police departments to acquire body-worn cameras ($23m in 2015, $20m in 2016, and $30m for 2017). Costliness, which is usually what cash-strapped municipalities and police departments argue, is not a factor here. The rights of a unionized workforce are an important one, but one that should not supersede the safety and security of all of our communities.
Top photo | A Philadelphia police officer demonstrates a body-worn camera used as part of a pilot project in Philadelphia. (AP/Matt Rourke)
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is an award-winning, freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, California. She is a staff writer for MintPress News, Daily Kos and co-hosts a weekly, morning drive-time public affairs/news show on the Pacifica Radio network. She is the author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant and Reparations … Not Yet: A Case for Reparations and Why We Must Wait; she is also a contributor to several social justice anthologies.