Do body cameras help police do their jobs better?

Moderated by Rick Badie

Trust is paramount between police and the communities they serve, especially in challenged neighborhoods where longstanding tensions fester. A state lawmaker would like to see all Georgia police officers equipped with body cameras, but acknowledges the prohibitive costs of such an initiative. A Chicago grassroots organization questions the value of the cameras for civilians. The third essay notes the experience a Gwinnett County agency has had since outfitting its officers.

Cameras protect police, public

By Vincent Fort

However one views what happened Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., it is easy to agree with the call by Michael Brown’s parents for the use of body cameras by police as a positive outcome of the tragic death of their son.

An array of legislative proposals to reform law enforcement have developed in the aftermath of police killings of African-Americans such as Brown, Eric Garner, Tamar Rice, John Crawford and Atlanta’s Kathryn Johnston.

These proposals include limiting no-knock warrants; repealing the state’s stand-your-ground law; the demilitarization of police; and grand jury reform, among others. All of these issues will be debated during the upcoming legislative session, and that debate will likely be contentious.

A proposal for which there may be an emerging consensus is the adoption of police body cameras. A recent poll indicated 91 percent of the public agree police should wear body cameras as they patrol our streets. Increasingly, the public believes the use of body cameras will result in fewer instances of excessive use of force by law enforcement.

Research shows this is true. In a study of body cameras in Rialto, Calif., the use of force by that city’s police department dropped by 59 percent. But body cameras also affect the actions of citizens who come into contact with the police. In the Rialto study, there was an 88 percent decline in citizen complaints made against officers. False complaints are less likely when body cameras are used. Body cameras will protect both the public and the police.

I believe that, in the best of all worlds, Georgia ought to require all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras. At the same time, the cost and maintenance of the equipment is a valid concern that must be considered.President Barack Obama’s law enforcement reform initiative includes $75 million to cover half the cost of body cameras for 50,000 officers. That program would provide equipment to only about 8 percent of the United States’ 630,000 law enforcement officers if Congress funds the initiative. Therefore, if the more-than 25,000 officers in Georgia are to be equipped, it will be the responsibility of state and local governments.

It has been gratifying that some Georgia law enforcement agencies have moved toward adopting body cameras.

The Atlanta Police Department began studying the use of cameras earlier this year. After the killing of Brown in Ferguson, Atlanta community groups such as the Gen Y Project and the United Youth Adult Conference implored the city to move quickly in adopting body cameras. Recently, the City Council approved issuing a request for proposal for 1,200 units. The Savannah Police Department is considering using body cameras after the September shooting death of a suspect. Other departments throughout the state are considering body cameras.

Ultimately, state and local governments should see these expenditures as well spent, in that they could save a city or county millions of dollars from huge civil settlements. Atlanta settled a civil suit for $4.9 million in the 2006 Kathryn Johnston killing. Habersham County settled for $2 million with the family of pastor Jonathan Ayers, who was wrongfully killed by a county drug task force in 2009.

Adopting body cameras by police is a complex process. Data storage, privacy concerns, training and protocols must be considered. And it is critical to keep in mind, as the discussion of body cameras evolves, that they are only one part of re-creating the relationship between police and the community.

True “community policing” has to be implemented so that African-American neighborhoods and other communities of color will see law enforcement not as an occupying force, but as partners in making neighborhoods safe. One of the casualties of recent police shootings is public trust. It is time for that trust to be restored.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat, represents District 39.

Reject police body cameras

We Charge Genocide

The non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer accused in the death of Eric Garner, came just two days after President Barack Obama announced his support for body cameras to address police violence.

The fact Garner’s death was filmed raises justifiable criticisms over the proposed cameras’ potential effectiveness. At the same time, large national protests were due in part to the horror of witnessing Garner’s death on instant video replay. The non-indictment of Pantaleo demonstrates that systemic disregard for black life cannot be solved by police officers wearing cameras.

We Charge Genocide was formed to center the voices and experiences of black and brown youth disproportionately and violently targeted by the Chicago Police Department. Part of our efforts to uplift and support young people’s experiences and voices is training Chicagoans to “copwatch,” or film the police. In the face of rampant police abuse, watching the cops shifts power dynamics so police are no longer able to act with impunity.As part of a larger organized effort to combat police violence, copwatching can be a tool for communities challenging police violence and racial profiling. For example, videos recording abusive behavior during police stops in New York City have been effective in shifting public consciousness when combined with broader organizing against Stop and Frisk.

Thus, while we support recording the police, We Charge Genocide recognizes it is fundamental that civilians be the ones holding the cameras. Video documentation can support the stories of those targeted by the police, perspectives often ignored by mainstream media and discounted in courts. When police control the cameras, those cameras serve as a tool for police violence.

It is clear that an increasing number of police departments have come to the conclusion that body cameras will support police narratives rather than challenge them. We are also concerned by accounts that such cameras will “malfunction” or simply be turned off during critical moments. Finally, we believe turning the cops into walking cameras is nothing but an expansion of the surveillance state, the fruit of a poisonous tree.

We Charge Genocide vehemently rejects any suggestion that victims of police violence who committed or were suspected of committing crimes deserved their treatment. Instead, we demand the valuing of all black lives, and challenge others to re-evaluate the impact of hypercriminalization on communities constantly patrolled by police.

Finally, We Charge Genocide believes the current calls for body cameras rely on an uncritical view of policing, one in which police need only be reformed to become safe for our communities. On the contrary, policing is an inherently violent and racist institution. Accordingly, we oppose all reforms that give additional resources to police departments.

To this end, We Charge Genocide will continue to work for initiatives that serve our communities, including reparations for victims of police torture, civilian police accountability projects, and initiatives for data transparency in police activities.

Any viable resolution to the issue of police violence must involve creative solutions, defunding our militarized police departments, and investment in community services. We ask that you join with members of your community to reject body cameras as a band-aid solution in the struggle against police violence and instead seek holistic, transformative solutions to community needs.

We Charge Genocide is a grassroots, intergenerational initiative in Chicago.

Cameras help goal of service

By Roy Whitehead

The Snellville Police Department investigated the use of body-worn cameras more than five years ago when an officer purchased his own. Quickly, we saw the value and utility in such a device. Prior to this, we had purchased in-car camera systems for our cars, but they were cheap, failed and left a significant void. As we replaced vehicles, we added new in-car systems. However, many officers were left without cameras.

Once the body-worn camera option became available, we began to incrementally acquire and issue cameras to officers with no in-car system. Over time and three iterations of cameras, we successfully equipped each officer with a body-worn camera in addition to installing in-car systems in each vehicle.

Both types of cameras have been proven valuable; however, the body-worn cameras have an advantage. While the in-car system remains fixed, the body camera travels with the officer and records what he or she sees.

With the videos, cases have been successfully prosecuted in court with clear, unequivocal evidence. The cameras assist with the investigation of officers when complaints are made regarding their professionalism or legality of their actions. So far, officers have been exonerated in each case. However, when the officer is wrong or makes a mistake, we would have clear evidence that would allow us to take appropriate action.

Each person who interacts with law enforcement has his or her own perception of the encounter. Since it is human nature for people to tell their story in a favorable light, video gives us an accurate depiction of what happened.

Recently, a father reported his daughter had been cited for running a red light and that the officer was rude. In addition, he reported that when his daughter told the officer she did not commit the violation, the officer said, “Well, you have a GPS, so I could charge you with distracted driving.”The video clearly recorded the violation, and the body camera recorded the interaction. The officer told her about the violation and she replied, “I must have been looking at my GPS and didn’t realize I had run the light.” The officer responded by advising that she could also be charged with distracted driving, but only gave her a warning for that infraction.

The father took a copy of the video and used it as an educational opportunity with his daughter. He was satisfied the violation had occurred and the officer had acted properly. The daughter said she didn’t remember the officer being so nice.

The downside to cameras is they could create an unreasonable expectation there will always be a camera. The equipment is not infallible. An officer could forget to turn the camera on. Some in-car camera systems appear to be recording, but later we find out they did not. Also, they have a four-hour battery life; officers work 12-hour shifts. Also, some video recordings could be taken out of context or distorted by the angle of the camera.

Overall, they are another tool that helps us achieve our goal of being open, and willing to communicate and provide the highest level of service to our community.

Roy Whitehead is Snellville police chief.

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