Putting body cameras to the test

There is a certain irony to the drama over body-worn cameras now playing out in court in Boston.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins vowed to issue a decision by noon Friday on the injunction sought by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which is looking to block Boston Police Commissioner William Evans from assigning officers to take part in six-month pilot program testing body-worn cameras. Over two days of hearings on the case, the union argued that the city was violating an agreement on the pilot program because it called for volunteers to take part. Evans and the city lawyers, meanwhile, maintain that the commissioner had the right to assign officers to take part after none stepped forward voluntarily.

The irony is that questions raised by the union about the effects of body cameras would be better addressed if it lost its challenge and Evans was able to proceed with his plan to assign officers to wear cameras.

Union president Patrick Rose insisted on the stand that his association is fully behind the camera pilot. The city maintains the union has a funny way of showing its support, with no members of the union executive board or a broader panel of union representatives from stations across the city leading the way by volunteering to take part. The union counters that the city did not do an adequate job explaining the program to rank-and-file officers and pointed to the fact that Evans himself was initially ambivalent about the idea of equipping his officers with cameras.

Union claims of support for the use of cameras notwithstanding, both Rose and an attorney for union raised questions in court about the use of body-worn cameras by citing a recent British study that suggested officers wearing cameras were more likely to be victims of assaults in tense encounters. The study, detailed in this recent CommonWealth examination of the evidence on body cameras, involved merging the results from 10 separate studies.

The aggregated findings showed no overall effect of cameras on use of force by police and a surprising 15 percent increase in the incidence of assaults against officers. The authors pointed out, however, that it is far from certain that the assault finding reflected a true cause-and-effect relationship. It’s possible, they say, that officers were less assertive in their initial exchanges with civilians because they are wearing cameras, and that somehow made them more vulnerable to assaults as tensions escalate. But the finding might also be a simple function of reporting bias, they say, with officers more likely to report an assault against them when they know they have camera evidence to back the claim.

In other words, the claim that cameras make officers more vulnerable to attacks is a huge reach that goes way beyond the study conclusions. What the study does make clear is that research on body cameras is still in its infancy with lots of unanswered questions about their effects.

The courtroom battle centers on contract rights and management prerogatives. Today’s Globe talks to legal experts who seem to lean toward believing the union will prevail.

While the union might win the argument that assigning officers to pilot the program violates their bargained agreement with the city, given the questions the union has raised about cameras, the pilot study would actually yield more useful information if the department did, in fact, assign officers to wear cameras, rather than rely on volunteers. Randomly choosing a sample of officers from various districts to fill out the 100-officer pilot study — and choosing another group of non-camera-wearing officers to serve as controls — could give the pilot study the sort of research rigor that could help fill the gaps in what we know about an issue of increasing public policy concern.

–MICHAEL JONAS

BEACON HILL

With revenue numbers down, the Legislature’s move to restore $231 million in vetoes from the state budget doesn’t look so smart, opines the Boston Herald.

The Baker administration makes $1 million in loan money available to drought-stricken farmers. (State House News)

The administration also previews a new website detailing state payroll and spending data. (Boston Globe)

Centro, the target of a state audit, says it was caught in a crossfire between Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office and MassHealth. (Masslive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

What does it mean to be a smart city? Jim Aloisi offers his take. (CommonWealth)

Worcester officials agree to sell a building with a troubled past to a developer for $48,000, well below the assessed value of $580,700. (Telegram & Gazette)

A Berkshire Eagle editorial applauds the hiring of a firefighter with a criminal record.

City Hall plaza in Boston is getting a winter facelift. (WBUR)

A procedural vote to approve meetings minutes at Ashland’s Board of Health turned into a heated argument with accusations of bullying flying between one member and the chairman. (MetroWest Daily News)

ELECTIONS

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump put forth their commander-in-chief bona fides but in assessing winners and losers, most observers are giving NBC’s Matt Lauer the biggest “L.” (New York Times)

Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson did himself no favors trying to buff his foreign policy credentials when, asked on MSNBC what he would do about the Syrian refugee crisis, he said, “What is Aleppo?,” unaware of the country’s largest city and its role in the crisis. (New York Times)

The Trump campaign dismissed Dallas Morning News endorsement of Clinton as a “liberal paper” bent on trying to “turn Texas blue,” even though Clinton is the first Democrat the News has endorsed since 1940. (U.S. News & World Report)

A ballot question dealing with bail reform is going before voters in New Mexico. (Governing)

Today’s Democratic primary match-up between incumbent state senator Pat Jehlen of Somerville and challenger Leland Cheung, a Cambridge city councilor, is serving as a warm-up tilt to the November ballot question over charter schools, with pro-charter Democratic for Education Reform spending heavily to back Cheung, while the Massachusetts Teachers Association is spending thousands attacking him and supporting Jehlen. (Boston Herald)

Education activist Erika Sanzi follows-up on this recent CommonWealth article with an essay for Huffington Post that holds out hope that Elizabeth Warren may still declare her support for the ballot question raising the cap on charter schools or at least won’t come out against the measure, given her long track record of support for broader school choice. US Rep. Stephen Lynch supports the ballot question. (Masslive)

A Tewksbury husband and wife are opposing the ballot question legalizing recreational marijuana because their son died of a heroin overdose, a devastating ending to drug experiences that they say started with marijuana. (Lowell Sun) US Rep. Stephen Lynch also says he is opposed to the marijuana ballot question. (Masslive)

There are lots of complicated write-in mishegas in various races being decided today on the South Shore and Cape Cod. (Politico)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in an op-ed in the New York Times, says Apple’s $14 billion tax hit in Europe is a teachable moment for Congress to change United States tax laws about multinational companies.

Apple unveils the iPhone 7. (Time)

Does Massachusetts have a supermarket shortage that disproportionately affects low-income and disabled people? (Greater Boston)

EDUCATION

A Connecticut judge, declaring that the state is defaulting on its constitutional duty to educate its poorest children, orders officials to come up with a new funding formula for schools. (Governing)

UMass campuses continue to struggle to meet Title IX requirements for participation by women in school-sponsored sports more than 40 years after passage of the landmark anti-discrimination law. (State House News Service) CommonWealth examined the issue at all the state’s public colleges and universities in the fall of 2010 and it doesn’t appear much has changed.

The upheaval at Suffolk University has landed on the radar of Moody’s Investor Service, which warns that the turmoil over the school’s leadership could discourage applicants and donors. (Boston Globe)

Funding cuts, enrollment declines, and the departure of its director, who either quit or was fired, depending on whose account you believe, are all hitting a labor studies center at UMass Amherst. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Some “tentative progress” in the state’s effort to rein in health care spending is reported by the Center for Health Information and Analysis. (Boston Globe) Spending is in line with economic growth, and slightly above the state’s benchmark. (State House News)

Thirteen Walgreens stores offer to take unwanted prescription drugs. (Masslive)

You might want to take those earbuds out of your teen’s ears. A report by the World Health Organization says nearly half of teens and young adults are exposed to unsafe noise levels from electronic devices that could cause hearing problems when they become adults. (U.S. News & World Report)

TRANSPORTATION

Keolis fired six workers and is deciding discipline for three others after Fox 25 reported on alleged fraud on timesheets by some commuter rail employees.

South Coast residents at a public hearing called for urgency by state officials in building the South Coast Rail, including support for an extension through Middleboro to get the project moving. (Standard-Times)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A Brazilian who was in the country illegally — and had twice been deported — is now in jail and charged with the unfathomable gunning down of his 19-year-old daughter. (Boston Herald) An Eagle-Tribune editorial demands answers on how two illegal immigrants from Ecuador who should have been deported ended up being charged with the rape of a woman in Haverhill.

A Quincy man was sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to killing his baby by feeding her a bottle of formula laced with opiates. The child’s mother is set to go on trial today. (Patriot Ledger)

MEDIA

Donald Trump says he is ending his press blacklist. (CNN)

Vanity Fair explores how Arianna Huffington lost her newsroom.