by Peri Barest
The City of Somerville reached a collective bargaining agreement with the Somerville Police Employees Association on March 17 after several years of negotiations. The agreement included the implementation of body-worn cameras for Somerville police.
Meghann Ackerman, deputy director of communications for the City of Somerville, said that the body cameras will help increase transparency and trust between the Somerville Police Department and the community.
“Body cameras are a critical tool for increasing transparency and accountability in policing,” Ackerman wrote in an email to the Daily. “While no one reform alone will achieve our goals to re-envision policing in our community, body cameras are an important step forward as we continue to build on our police force’s deep commitment to transparent, procedurally just, and compassionate community policing.”
Ward 5 City Councilor Mark Niedergang said that body cameras will make both civilians and police officers more accountable for their actions.
“They make it clear to police officers that whatever they do will be visible afterwards,” Niedergang said. “It provides a record, so that if there is a complaint, there can be more evidence in the investigation to determine whether the complaint is justified or not.”
Somerville’s Interim Police Chief Charles Femino shared his thoughts in a press release.
“The police administration’s hope is that this technology will enhance mutual respect and trust between our officers and the community while providing greater transparency into police operations,” Femino said. “There is good evidence that body cameras can reduce the potential for police misconduct or excessive use of force while also reducing false accusations of police abuse, all of which supports public safety and procedural justice.”
According to Niedergang, the agreement came after more than five years of negotiations between the city and the Somerville Police Employees Association, one of two police unions in the city. While the Somerville Police Superior Officers Association stated publicly that they would be willing to accept body cameras, it was important to reach the agreement with the Somerville Police Employees Association because it represents patrol officers who make up a larger percentage of the police force and spend more time on the streets, Niedergang said.
The Joint Labor-Management Committee assumed jurisdiction over the contract negotiations at the end of 2019, Ackerman said. After several mediation sessions through the Joint Labor-Management Committee process, city and Somerville Police Department resources needed to be diverted to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the parties took a hiatus from mediation sessions from March 2020 until October 2020; mediation sessions resumed last fall.
“It’s not uncommon for public safety unions and cities or towns to be in negotiations for many years,” Niedergang said. “State agencies can also be involved in this, and it can take a long time to get before these state agencies because there’s … 350 cities and towns in the Commonwealth.”
Although the City did not share information about why the Somerville Police Employees Association agreed to body cameras in this round of negotiations, Niedergang said he believes that the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests last year catalyzed the negotiations process.
“I definitely think that what happened with the killing of George Floyd, the protests here, the public mobilization around ‘Defund the Somerville Police Department’ and re-imagining policing had an effect on this,” he said.
On June 3, 2020, Somerville declared systemic racism a public safety and health emergency. Mayor Joseph Curtatone also announced a civilian oversight of the Somerville Police Department Committee as well as changes to the process for handling police misconduct cases in accordance with a 10-point plan released by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and other Massachusetts officials of color.
Eight days later, City Council President and Ward 1 Councilor Matt McLaughlin; Councilors At Large Wilfred Mbah, Mary Jo Rossetti, Kristen Strezo and William White Jr.; Niedergang and Curtatone co-introduced a joint resolution in support of body cameras for sworn officers.
Nierdergang said he noticed a major shift in the union’s behavior following the Black Lives Matter protests, particularly in comparison to a Somerville Police Employees Association demonstration against Curtatone putting up a Black Lives Matter banner in front of City Hall a few years ago.
“About a month after the killing of George Floyd, the city council received a letter from the then-president of the SPEA … basically saying that their union understood that police officers sometimes do bad things, that they want to be a good partner with the City and that they look forward to working together with the Mayor and the City Council,” Niedergang said. “This was unlike any communication that I’ve seen from this union before, so it was clear that they realized, first, something terrible happened and maybe these terrible things happen more often than we realize, and second, they realize that a lot of people are really mad and upset about this, and jobs in the police department and police funding could be at risk.”
The final step in approving the agreement is for the City Council to vote to fund the settlement. Ackerman said that the City is preparing to submit the appropriate request to the City Council as soon as possible. The City plans to use a procurement process to assess the hardware, software and training costs of body cameras and the funding request will be in addition to the City’s budget for the 2021 fiscal year.
According to Ackerman, only a handful of other municipalities in Massachusetts have fully implemented body cameras in their police departments.
“Since the City’s announcement on this point, there has been great interest by other municipalities in the Somerville agreement with [Somerville Police Employees Association],” Ackerman said. “We hope that this settlement provides other communities with helpful information as they embark on their own efforts to implement this important technology in police departments throughout the region.”
Niedergang said that he is excited by this first step toward police reform in the City, but there is still much more work to do to increase accountability and community engagement between the police department and the community.
“This is an important step, but I would characterize it as a tiny first step,” Niedergang said. “This is really just the beginning.”
Photo by Alexander Thompson / The Tufts Daily Archives