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Make police wear active body cameras

| Thursday, June 11, 2020

The murder of George Floyd is a national tragedy. He is the latest victim of a racist criminal justice system, and we have a duty to address this systemic problem. This starts with investigating and prosecuting the police officers responsible for this egregious crime, which, thankfully, the FBI and Minnesota Attorney General are already doing. But the issue cannot rest there. Protesters in over 350 American cities have called for justice for Floyd and for reforms to our justice system. As a nation, we must listen to these voices, take their message to heart and work to enact comprehensive reforms to prevent these tragedies in the future. 

Reforms should start with increasing the use of body-worn cameras (BWCs) by police departments around the country. In 2015, the Justice Department spent $23 million to fund BWC pilot programs in 32 states. Research found that cameras improve the quality and safety of police interactions with the public. For example, a study conducted by Arizona State found that officers wearing cameras were more cautious and had fewer complaints lodged against them. Additionally, police body cameras enjoy immense public approval. When asked whether or not they support requiring police officers to wear cameras, 89% of Americans say they support BWCs, with 56% responding that they strongly favor the policy. Body cameras also have the potential to improve the quality of police training by allowing junior officers to watch tapes and analyze how other officers handle stressful and dangerous situations. Finally, BWCs make it easy to investigate complaints filed against police officers. Derrick Chauvin, the officer who murdered Floyd, had 17 complaints on his record. If BWC technology had been used rigorously by the Minneapolis Police Department, there is a good chance that Chauvin could have been dismissed from law enforcement before his encounter with Floyd. 

Authority over most law enforcement is reserved by the states, but there are still steps the federal government could take to incentivize the use of body-worn cameras by local police departments. There should be a federal program to provide grants to cities whose police departments commit to using BWCs. This should include some funding upfront to help cover the initial cost of the cameras, but the majority of the funding should be tied to performance standards. For example, cities whose police departments are rated highly by an independent review commission could receive additional grants. Research points to the positive impact BWCs have on the effectiveness and accountability of law enforcement officers, and this program is one way to help translate that data into real-world benefits. 

Police worn body cameras do enjoy widespread support, but some still object to them on the grounds of privacy concerns. Because individual states handle these issues differently, it is also worth laying out some policies a federal program should support to make sure the cameras are as effective as possible. First, police officers must be required to turn on their cameras when responding to any call while on duty. This will ensure that all situations with the potential to escalate will be recorded. Witnesses and victims interviewed after any incident, however, may request to not be recorded for the sake of their privacy. Second, officers who do not comply with their department’s guidelines regarding BWCs must be held accountable with direct and serious disciplinary action. Additionally, there must be legal protections for defendants in court who were arrested by an officer who failed to use their camera properly. Third, officers should not be permitted to review their camera footage before filing a report about any incidents, so that the footage does not alter or taint their perception of events. Finally, the footage from BWCs must be public record, unless filmed on private property, in which case the footage would be available only to citizens captured by the camera. The inclusion of all these policies will lead to a BWC program that most effectively keeps the police accountable and the people safe.

The problem of police violence against minority communities is one that infects the core of America’s criminal justice system. There is no easy solution. The implementation of body-worn cameras for all on-duty police officers is not a complete cure, nor will it correct the wrongful deaths of Floyd or any other previous victim of racist police violence. Increased public awareness, better police training and many other reforms are needed to end this cycle of violence for good. A good place to start, however, is increasing the use of police-worn body cameras because they are concrete, scientifically based tools that can help inoculate communities against future police violence by keeping law enforcement officers accountable. 

Thomas Richter


June 4

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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