The public increasingly expects that police interactions will be recorded. And police unions increasingly expect a raise for doing the recording.
The Police Department in Worcester, Mass., could serve as Exhibit A in favor of body cameras for officers.
Plagued by allegations that officers planted evidence, stole drug money and coerced sex in prostitution cases, the 450-officer department learned last November that it was facing a federal civil rights investigation like those launched in Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., and most recently Memphis.
Elected officials in Worcester had been trying for years to put a body camera program in place, and the Police Department ran a pilot that ended in 2020. But when the city announced that the program would finally begin in earnest in February, the police unions balked, saying they wanted extra pay for wearing the recording devices.
Worcester agreed to pay each rank-and-file officer an annual stipend of $1,300, and the city’s lawyer told the City Council’s 11 members that they were “legally obligated” to approve the payments.
At the vote in May, Etel Haxhiaj, one of three councilors who opposed the stipend, said it flew in the face of the accountability people were demanding.
“I cannot imagine that when community members called for police transparency and justice, beyond body cams, that they envisioned that it would come with a reward.”
The union in Worcester was not the only police labor group looking to leverage demands for accountability. In towns and cities across the country, police unions have been asking for pay bumps for body cameras, seeking to capitalize on the growing public expectation that every encounter with the police will be recorded.
The city of Worcester agreed to pay each rank and-file officer an annual stipend of $1,300 for wearing a body camera. Credit…Kylie Cooper for The New York Times
Officers in Las Vegas were among the first to win a raise that explicitly paid them to wear cameras, while unions in New York City, Seattle, Cincinnati and other cities have used body cameras as a bargaining chip in negotiations that led to significant raises. And more recently the police departments for Nassau County, N.Y., and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey agreed to $3,000 annual body camera bonuses.
“It’s literally laughable how the situation has been manipulated by the unions,” said Charles Katz, a criminologist at Arizona State University, noting that the cameras have been shown to reduce the number of misconduct complaints against officers. “Which other pieces of equipment that protect officers’ careers and lives have they charged extra for? They’re not charging extra for Kevlar vests.”
In lobbying local government officials and labor regulators, unions have argued that a pay bump compensates them for the added responsibility and loss of privacy that comes from wearing cameras. But publicly, they have said little about why officers should be paid more.
In Worcester, Officer Dan Gilbert, the union president, did not respond to attempts to reach him.
Cameras are generally activated during law enforcement operations like responding to emergency calls or conducting investigations, not during roll call or meal breaks. Some more recent models activate automatically in certain situations, such as when officers draw their guns.
Sean M. Rose, a Worcester city councilor, told his fellow council members that he had gone out on a shift with an officer and observed the additional responsibilities the cameras entailed, including worrying about the camera’s battery life, taking time to upload metadata, and driving to headquarters to dock the camera after firing a Taser or gun or otherwise using a significant degree of force. “It was really eye-opening to me,” he said before voting yes.
Body cameras first began to be used by police departments in the United States following their adoption by law enforcement in the United Kingdom in 2005. But it was not until the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., which was not captured on video, that the United States saw a big push to mandate body cameras for officers — and soon after, the first requests from unions for increased compensation.
A Worcester police officer wearing his body camera. Credit…Kylie Cooper for The New York Times
After the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, which touched off months of protests nationwide, the pressure for officers to wear body cameras intensified. Departments that had not yet rolled them out faced demands to make them standard issue, and some unions called once again for “accountability pay.”
Today, virtually all of the nation’s 75 largest departments use body cameras, which can run to millions per year for equipment and data storage.
Worcester, with just over 200,000 residents, will pay $3.9 million under a five-year contract with Axon, which is supplying the Police Department with body cameras and stun guns. On top of that, the $1,300 stipends are projected to cost the city $2 million over five years.
The Worcester city manager, Eric Batista, told the council that the deal was in the “best interest” of the city, and emphasized that Worcester would pay a fixed amount while other cities had offered between 1 percent and 2.5 percent of officers’ salaries.
Unions have the right to bargain whenever there is a change in wages, hours or working conditions. In Worcester, the president of the police supervisors’ union — which is still in negotiations with the city — said that while body cameras would increase public trust, they had also brought about “the most significant changes to the department in decades.”
So far, state labor boards have agreed with union arguments that cities cannot impose body cameras without negotiating at least some aspects of their use, according to William Aitchison, a lawyer who represents unions and has written several books on public safety labor issues.
Those rulings have given unions a say in policies like when the devices must be activated and how often supervisors are allowed to review footage. Perhaps most controversially, many unions have won the right for officers involved in a serious incident to review body camera video before giving a statement to investigators. In Worcester, officers may view the footage only after writing their initial report, but before giving additional statements.
Years of negotiations in Portland, Ore., which has been under federal oversight for civil rights violations, yielded this unusual compromise: In cases of deadly force or serious injury, officers cannot view body camera footage before being questioned — but neither can the investigators who are going to question them.
More and more, unions have used their bargaining right to demand more pay. Cities, many of which are struggling to fill vacancies on their police departments, may be willing to concede, using body cameras as a way to increase compensation for police officers without having to give similar raises to other public sector workers, Mr. Aitchison said.
In lobbying local government officials and labor regulators, unions have argued that a pay bump compensates them for the added responsibility and loss of privacy that comes from wearing cameras. Credit…Kylie Cooper for The New York Times
Such deals do not always sit well with the public. In Rhode Island last year, a spokeswoman for Gov. Dan McKee defended a $3,000 annual bump for state troopers, saying that a pilot program had shown that body cameras would add to their “duties and responsibilities.”
After widespread criticism, the governor, a Democrat, backpedaled, saying the raises were not linked to the cameras but were simply “compensating the state police in a way they are entitled to and deserve.”
Worcester is a growing city with relatively low crime. It is home to eight colleges and several large manufacturers, and its affordability has made it attractive to refugees and other immigrants. The makeup of the population is now just over 50 percent white; it was more than 95 percent white in 1970. The Police Department, though, is nearly 80 percent white and has been slower to diversify than other city agencies, said Worcester City Councilor Khrystian E. King.
Mr. King, who voted against the body camera stipends, said he might not have objected to a one-time payment for officers, but he did not think the stipends should continue in perpetuity. “At some point, wearing a body camera has to be part of your job,” he said.
The Justice Department has not disclosed what prompted its investigation in Worcester, but has said it found “significant justification to investigate whether the Worcester Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of racially discriminatory and gender-biased policing, and uses excessive force.”
In 2018, a Worcester lawyer wrote a 34-page complaint of widespread misconduct in the Police Department. In 2020, a group devoted to ending the sex trade told the Justice Department that Worcester officers were regularly sexually assaulting or coercing sex from women whom they were investigating for prostitution. And in May, 12 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit claiming that officers used excessive force against protesters and bystanders during the demonstrations after George Floyd’s killing. The Police Department, which declined to comment on any of the allegations, said in November that it was cooperating with the federal investigation.
The body camera program began in February with promises of audits to make sure that the cameras were used and, eventually, automatic linking of officers’ reports to the videos. But Joseph Hennessey, a defense lawyer whose clients have sued the department for civil rights violations, objected to one case he has seen in which an officer was given authority to turn off his camera while searching an apartment, which is permitted by the department’s policy.
“The whole purpose of the cameras was accountability,” Mr. Hennessey said, “and they’re shutting them off.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.