As the city grapples with a proposal to restore a Police Commission, a new controversy related to police accountability has emerged, about the installation of video cameras in city police cruisers.
City Hall has argued that dashboard cameras, as well as audio recorders on officers’ uniforms, would benefit the SPD by reducing liability risks and providing information that could support officers’ testimony about arrests. The patrol officers’ union, however, protested that the city had not provided adequate details about the program during contract negotiations and said the plan should undergo more study.
Earlier this week, a state arbitration panel appointed to resolve contract disputes ruled in favor of the union, referring to “the potentially far-reaching impact of the City’s proposal.” It ordered the formation of a study committee, with four members appointed by the union and four by the police commissioner, to look further into the issue and come up with recommendations before negotiations begin on the union’s next contract. The current contract expires in June of 2016.
The ruling comes as the City Council is considering a proposal to reinstate a citizens Police Commission to handle personnel, policy and discipline decisions in the SPD. Mayor Domenic Sarno staunchly opposes that idea, preferring the current system, in which the department is overseen by one commissioner, and his Law Department has issued an opinion saying the City Council does not have legal authority to establish a commission. City councilors and community members who support the idea, however, are continuing to push forward, arguing that a commission would bring more accountability and transparency to the police department. The patrol officers’ union has voiced its support for a Police Commission.
The Rev. Talbert Swan II, president of the Springfield NAACP, is among those who believe that cruiser cameras and recorders would be another step toward police accountability. After the arbitrators’ ruling, Swan wrote a public letter to Joe Gentile, the police union president, saying he was “saddened to learn of the pushback” from the union over the issue.
“The idea of using video cameras in patrol car situations to promote officer safety and to provide accountability is a concept that should be supported by both citizens and police officers alike,” he wrote. “Video offers a unique way to provide accountability through an unbiased, accurate view of what really happened in a given situation.”
Swan called cruiser cameras “a wonderful tool to protect both the public from police misconduct and the police from false accusations” and said he found it “confusing” that the union would oppose them. “Even as the union is seeking greater accountability by supporting the creation of a police commission, it should not be afraid of good policing practices such as video cameras,” he wrote.
Swan added that he’ll ask the NAACP membership to press the City Council not to fund the officers’ contract unless the cameras are allowed.
The arbitrators also ruled on pay issues, approving raises for patrol officers in the current contract and ordering the city to pay full Quinn Bill benefits. Under the Quinn Bill, officers receive salary bumps if they have college or graduate degrees. The city had wanted to pay just 50 percent of those benefits after the state stopped covering a portion of the costs. The panel, in its decision, said that would “would result in a severe and unwarranted reduction in employee compensation.”