By Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk
Tribune News Service
Most weeks find RedBlueAmerica columnists Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk disagreeing over politics and policy. Not this week.
Hundreds of police and sheriff’s departments across the country are either testing or adopting body-worn video cameras for their officers. Following last year’s controversial shooting in Ferguson, Mo., advocates see the cameras as a way to protect the public and hold police accountable.
But there’s a catch. Police unions worry their members may be subject to unfair scrutiny, while civil liberties groups fret about the cameras’ effect on individual privacy.
Is the body-cam issue one of those rare issues where left and right can agree? And how can officials address objections to the technology without compromising the public interest? Mathis and Boychuk weigh in.
Body cameras are no panacea. Although small studies in Rialto, Calif., and Mesa, Ariz., found body cameras can reduce the number of citizen complaints, it’s too early to make broad generalizations about the technology’s benefits.
So what makes body cameras so attractive? As one Southern California county sheriff put it to me recently, “It’s just one more piece of a larger puzzle.”
Think of body cameras as one more tool in the law enforcement toolbox. Often tools have multiple applications. Sometimes tools can be misused. Employed properly, however, the police and the public should benefit from increased transparency and accountability.
But the police unions have been wary at best, and hostile at worst. Unions in Boston, New York, Miami and Los Angeles object to using the cameras without certain ground rules.
The LAPD in December became the largest police department in the nation to begin rolling out the cameras. The police union, which just concluded contract negotiations with the city earlier this month, took the airwaves and newspapers saying that while they favor body cameras, they want a “fair” system.
In a just world where the common good prevails, a “fair” system would ensure the interests of the public trump interests of the public employees’ union.
What the unions really want is for their departments to let officers review videos after officer-involved shootings or other “critical incidents.” Ordinarily, a cop would give a statement on the scene and later submit to a formal interview as part of an internal investigation. The unions argue that officers should have a chance to review footage to help them provide a full account.
In reality, reviewing that footage would also allow officers to shape their testimony to their advantage. Some prosecutors would call that “coaching.” And so rather than enhancing law enforcement’s credibility, it looks once again like the police are simply protecting their own.
Elected officials, always looking for endorsements, may be tempted to roll over. But for the body-camera experiment to succeed, the police unions must fail.
As best I can tell, there are two big complaints from liberals about police-worn body cameras: First, that they aren’t perfect. Second, that they might invade civil liberties of people being investigated by police.
The first complaint is easy to address: No, body cameras aren’t perfect. We know already that police misdeeds caught on camera don’t always result in police accountability — videos ranging from the Rodney King beating to the Eric Garner choking in Staten Island left little doubt about the brutality involved, and yet responsible officers in both cases avoided punishment.
To date, however, no perfect system has presented itself. But cameras are a big improvement. Think: We will never know precisely what happened in Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo. — eyewitness accounts can be faulty or change over time thanks to the faults of human memory. With a video, at least, it’s easier to answer the question of what, exactly, happened during an incident, even if we might still find substantial disagreement on the meaning of those facts.
In other words: Cameras are better, much better, than your lying eyes.
As for civil liberties — cop-worn body cameras don’t really concern me on that front. If you live in a city of any size, there are already hundreds of publicly and privately owned surveillance cameras watching the streets at all time. Which would be a problem, perhaps, except that when you venture into public, where people can see you, you don’t have any real expectation of privacy: Anybody who wants to take a picture of you is already legally allowed to do so.
The ACLU, though, has offered its own recommended guidelines to protect us. It suggests officers notify citizens when they’re being recorded, and that all conversations between police and civilians be recorded — with an exception for “First Amendment activities” that an officer has no reason to suspect is connected to crime.
Sounds good. Body cameras are new. We’ll have to come up with new rules to govern their use.
Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Mathis is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.