Following the SEPTA transit officers' affirmative vote on March 17, the SEPTA board unanimously passed the previously agreed upon, tentative five-year contract on March 28.
“Everything that was in the proposed agreement was approved by the Board,” said Andrew Busch, SEPTA’s chief press officer. “There wasn’t any discussion around it at the meeting, just a standard vote.”
The contract comes as a sigh of relief and as a sign of victory for the officers who have been working for over a year without an agreement. The inability to come to a deal led to a strike by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Transit Police Officers Lodge 109’s 178 members on March 6.
After reaching a tentative agreement on March 12, the officers went back to work and awaited official ratification. Since its passing, the new contract went into effect March 30.
Among the various details of the contract, past reports focused mainly on two stipulations: across-the-board pay raises and an amendment to the transit officers' body-worn camera (BWC) policy.
Not addressed prior to the contract’s ratification is a new provision on privacy rights for police officers. Belonging to Article 33, under Officer Rights, the new protocol prohibits SEPTA from releasing an officer’s contact information to the public or media, unless an incident resulted in termination.
“The Authority will refrain from releasing any officer’s name, age, address, or contact information, during the course of or after an Internal Affairs Investigation, to the media or public, except in cases of termination,” the policy states.
According to Busch, the union was the one to bring the privacy amendment to the negotiation table with SEPTA’s board. When asked whether withholding contact information would hinder media and public-facing accountability standards, Busch responded:
“From SEPTA’s standpoint, we believe this provision balances the concerns expressed by the union to protect officers’ privacy, while also allowing SEPTA to keep the public informed about incidents of serious misconduct that result in termination,” said Busch. “There was no specific prohibition such as this in the previous contract, however, it is consistent with past practice.”
Even if the non-disclosure policy is “consistent with past practice,” the written amendment has drawn criticism for its lack of transparency and its possible promotion of inappropriate acts by officers that require punitive action but do not result in termination.
“This is what the police state does. Protect cops, hide evidence and cloak it in privacy,” said Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Co-op. “This is an example of why policing should be abolished.”
The prohibition is just the latest policy in the SEPTA transit officers’ new contract that raises red flags. As previously reported and as per Article 33, under Officer Rights, transit officers will now be allowed to view body camera footage after submitting an initial incident report and before being interviewed in an internal or administrative investigation.
Experts and activists have criticized the policy of allowing officers to review footage, because it is noted to distort memories as well as allow officers to change their stories to match what’s seen in the footage.
“The Authority (SEPTA) recognizes that video images may not always show the full story nor do video images capture an entire scene,” the updated policy states. “The Authority also recognizes that completing a written document from memory alone may be subject to slight deviations in accuracy. As such, the Authority agrees to continue its practice of not using Body Worn Camera (BWC) video to initiate discipline for minor deviations in an officer’s recollection of events.”
Officers are able to submit a supplemental report if there is discrepancy found between the footage and report. The contract follows:
“Upon request, an officer will be permitted to view BWC camera recordings, when available from their own BWC after the initial report pursuant to an arrest or Response to Resistance is submitted and approved by a supervisor. Upon request, the officer will be permitted to provide additional information if the BWC video recording prompted further clarity or detail to supplement the initial approved report; or to provide context to their initial report or statement.”
In regards to officers viewing camera footage before internal investigations, the contract reads:
“Prior to being interviewed in an internal or administrative investigation, officers may preview video upon request from their camera or the camera of another officer engaged in the same incident, if the video is being used to support discipline.”