Ferguson and Cameras

According to the New York Times, the governor of Missouri is now deploying the National Guard in an “effort[] to quell unrest” resulting from a white police officer’s shooting of a black teenager in the city of Ferguson. It seems to me that much of the “unrest” is a result of a lack of factual information about what took place between the officer and the teenager. Many community members believe that the teenager was shot without provocation. The officer hasn’t spoken publicly, to my knowledge, but appears to have told investigators that the teenager, who was very large, was attacking him. As far as I can tell, there are few credible witnesses, and the autopsy results don’t determine conclusively which version of events is correct. As a result, people can and do believe very different things about the incident, making violent disagreement possible.

If the officer had been equipped with a wearable camera, we would have much better information about what happened. Even a dash-mounted camera in the car would have helped. It might or might not have captured video of the interaction, but even an audio recording would be better than nothing.

The lack of a dash-mounted camera is a bit of a surprise. Many, if not most, police departments now have cameras in every patrol car. According to the police chief in Ferguson, “his department has 18 patrol cars. This spring, the department purchased two dashboard cameras and two wearable body cameras, but the equipment hasn’t been installed in vehicles because the department doesn’t have the money to cover that cost.” Hindsight is 20-20, but the costs of dealing with the “unrest” and the forthcoming lawsuit by the teenager’s family will make that cost seem like pocket change.

The incident has led to calls to equip all law enforcement officers with wearable cameras. The Editor in Chief of PoliceOne has a column here entitled Following Ferguson, a body camera on every officer? A columnist at Slate goes even further here, arguing that all public servants, including schoolteachers, should be equipped with recording devices.

There seems to be a strong argument for wider deployment of recording devices among law enforcement, at least when officers are engaged in adversarial interactions. And the reports that I have read suggest that departments that are using wearable cameras have had good experiences. But I’m interested in others’ perspectives. Would you support or oppose a policy that provided officers with wearable cameras and required their use? Would that sour the relationship between law enforcement and the public, or be too intrusive? I welcome responses by email, or of course in the comments section.

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