During a recent appearance on WGBH's program Boston Public Radio, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans was asked about reports that police at protests in Ferguson, Missouri were using black tape to cover up their names to conceal their identities. Evans agreed with host Margery Eagan that it was unlikely such a thing would ever take place in Boston.
“We have a clear policy that if anyone asks for our identity or our badge number, we clearly give it to them. We like to be transparent,” Evans said.
That policy, called Rule 306A, is posted on the Boston Police Department's website and reads in part, “While in uniform, sworn personnel shall wear their Department badges on the left breast of their outermost garment.”
Despite this policy and Evans' assurance, we noticed quite a few Boston police officers who were not displaying their badges while we reported on the massive December 4 protest against the lack of accountability for police violence. While the majority of officers we saw seemed to be displaying their badges in accordance with the policy, it didn't take much effort to spot quite a few who weren't.
When the protest was winding down, a large number of police officers and demonstrators were gathered outside Park Street Station. Most of the police at this point were either standing around or milling about, so we approached a handful of the ones who were not displaying their badges.
The responses given by officers when questioned about their missing badges were generally ridiculous. Many would not talk to us at all, with some refusing to even look at us, while others gave childish answers. One Boston police sergeant wouldn't explain why he wasn't wearing his badge and told us that his first name was “Sergeant” when asked. Two officers we spoke with claimed to have “lost” their badges, including one who told us to send it to William Evans if we found it. Another police officer said "Thank you" when told he wasn't wearing his badge.
Boston police officers weren't the only ones hiding their badges that night. A Transit Police officer we confronted about his badge said he wasn't wearing it because “somebody could use it as a weapon against [him] if they rip it off.” We also spotted Walpole police officers who weren't wearing visible badges.
The fact that many police officers weren't wearing their badges created some confusion as to who was and wasn’t a police officer because there were many civilian employees present that night who were wearing the same yellow vests (which say “Boston Police” on them) as the Boston police officers.
We asked a number of officers to present their police ID cards, which all municipal police officers are required by state law to carry and display upon lawful request (Transit Police also carry them, but are not required to by law). Two police officers did present their ID cards, but the majority of the officers we spoke with declined or simply ended the conversation. One of the police officers who claimed to have “lost” his badge also claimed to not have his ID card with him.
We also noticed that Boston Police Sergeant Thomas Rose had a strip of black tape across his badge. Rose explained the tape was for someone who died and we noticed the tape was not obscuring the information on the badge. Given the subject of the protest, the decision to display his badge with black tape on it came off as, perhaps unintentionally, inflammatory.
At one point during the evening, we tried to bring the fact that some police officers weren't wearing their badges to the attention of a deputy superintendent, who was likely the highest ranking Boston police officer on scene. The deputy superintendent insisted that there weren't any cops hiding their badges even as one walked up just a few feet behind him.
Despite Evans' claim that police in Boston would probably never hide their identities, it seems to be a routine part of police culture there.