Had the shooting of Missouri teenager Michael Brown been caught on tape, we might have been spared another round of racial strife this country doesn’t need.
Video would improve the odds of truth and justice prevailing in court, comforting those who don’t trust the system. If it showed an unjust execution, society would have more assurance of appropriate charges and a conviction. If it showed an act of self-defense, the officer would have more protection from the prospect of unfair, politically motivated prosecution. A recording could offer a glimpse of truth – the greatest equalizer of all.
Cameras in public, a controversial practice, do more good than harm. If they weren’t of value, the NFL wouldn’t review tape to reverse bad decisions on the field. A culture that demands state-of-the-art justice in sporting events should tolerate no lesser standard in matters of life, death and liberty.
So it’s a welcome development to see the Colorado Springs Police Department outfitting officers with body-worn cameras. It’s part of a five-month pilot program that will hopefully lead to a permanent practice.
The benefits seem obvious and are not theoretical. A yearlong study by Taser International and England’s University of Cambridge determined uniform cameras reduce use-of-force incidents by 59 percent. They reduce overall complaints about police by nearly 88 percent.
Cameras are neither pro-cop nor anti-cop. They are neither pro-suspect nor anti-suspect. They are neither pro-civil rights nor anti-civil rights.
And, no, they are not Big Brother. They are objective, inanimate eyes and ears that protect police, suspects and the community. Police are more likely to obey the letter of the law when their actions are recorded. Moreover, they are more protected against false accusations of excessive force and other abuses of authority.
The American Civil Liberties Union champions the cameras but also warns of a downside.
“Transparency and accountability are both great reasons for police to use body cameras, but we’ll want to know which guidelines and procedures will be put into action to make sure the technology isn’t misused and people’s rights to privacy are protected,” said Denver ACLU public policy director Denise Maes, as quoted in a Gazette story by Andrea Sinclair.
Privacy is a reasonable concern but a minor one in terms of interactions with police. Sidewalks, streets and places of public accommodation are open for all the world to see – even from the lens of an officer-worn camera. Police interaction with the public is not a private matter – even on private property. If it were, Americans would have no means of policing the police. Police evidence, regardless of any suspect’s innocence or guilt, belongs to the public. Ultimately, after sensitive investigations run their course, the public has access to all evidence and transcripts of investigations and arrests. Transparency is the greatest asset in defense of civil rights – for police and civilians.
As local law enforcement experiments with more cameras, questions will arise. As Sinclair’s article explains, the city will need to determine what discretion officers have in turning cameras on and off, whether they have authority to edit footage, where footage will be stored and for how long. Police officials must also determine which recording equipment suits them best.
At the end of the experiment, city officials should devise policies that maximize the amount of on-duty police activity that gets recorded. Doing so might prevent injustice or perceived injustice. It could save lives and prevent more destructive riots that set this country back.
Wayne Laugesen is editorial page editor at the Colorado Springs Gazette, where this op-ed originally appeared.