The city has paid $230 per month for the last eight months to Verizon to track police officers with a global-positioning system that hasn’t been turned on yet.
The department also spent $50,000 to purchase hardware needed to make operational the GPS system first proposed by City Manager Bernie Lynch and Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee three years ago.
But two city unions are blocking the project because they want assurances the data will be used for public safety and not discipline.
City taxpayers are not footing the bill for the hardware outlay or the monthly fee. Police are using the law-enforcement trust fund, built with money taken during drug seizures. That money can only be used for federally-approved purposes, such as buying police equipment.
Lynch and Lavallee announced the initiative after a cruiser was stolen in the Highlands by Ricky Sin of Lowell. Sin pleaded guilty to several charges, including larceny of a motor vehicle.
"Our goal here is to know where the cruisers are and where our people are," Lynch said Tuesday. "And it would certainly be helpful in terms of the deployment of officers."
The 170-member Lowell Patrolmen’s Association has other concerns, President Dennis Moriarty said.
"This issue is not as black and white as it might appear," said Moriarty. "We would be willing to approve its use with certain stipulations."
Primarily, he said, the union does not want it used as a disciplinary tool
and that the data not be stored.
"There is already a system of checks and balances for that," said Moriarty. "There is a street boss for every shift, a lieutenant and a sergeant. This would be overkill." Moriarty suggested the trust fund be used for other purposes, like officer training.
"I don’t see it (being used for discipline) unless a police officer is somewhere he or she shouldn’t be," said Lynch.
Patrolmen are working on an expired contract. The same is true with police dispatchers, who have joined patrolmen in opposing the system going live, Lavallee said. Lavallee declined to elaborate on the union opposition, except to say it concerns a “change in work conditions.”
T.J. Cooper, president of the union which represents dispatchers, said the union is not opposed to “enhanced public safety for the city of Lowell.” But like the patrolmen, dispatchers are concerned about discipline.
"I don’t want it to be used for discipline, for instance, ‘like ‘why didn’t you look at the screen and dispatch another cruiser," said Cooper, who is a public safety dispatcher. Cooper said she has other concerns but declined to elaborate.
Cooper said she briefly discussed the matter with Lynch more than a year ago, but there have been no subsequent discussions.
The department’s superior officers union signed on to the GPS initiative, technically known as “automatic vehicle locators,” in May 2012, when they approved a new contract which gave union members 7 percent pay raises spread over three years.
Lynch said the city is “close, getting a lot closer” to resolving the GPS issue with the patrolmen and dispatchers. Lynch declined to discuss those negotiations, or whether those unions will be given pay raises to finally accept the GPS devices.
Cooper did say her union’s demands will be in-line with those of the other unions.
Neither Lynch nor Lavallee said they regret signing a contract with Verizon even though that matter hadn’t been settled at City Hall.
"We were of the opinion (a settlement) was imminent," Lavallee said.
"I don’t think it was premature," added Lynch. "Well, perhaps in a minor way. It’s not a question of whether we can do this, because we can," the manager added. "We’re just trying to resolve the collective-bargaining issues."
Once that happens, Lynch added, the system will be ready for immediate activation.