Body cameras hold police officers accountableBy Nathan James | 12/03/2014 9:50pm
In the aftermath of Ferguson, our country faces many questions with no clear answers. These questions touch on race relations, the changing nature of our police force, the formative role media plays in some conflicts and other topics of equal gravity. Because we can’t know exactly what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, Ferguson has given us few answers to these questions. However, there is one thing the altercation between Brown and Wilson should make us absolutely certain of: That all police officers in this country need to be outfitted with cameras while on duty.
Our police force faces accusations of brutality every single day. Some of these accusations are surely true, and some surely false, but it can be incredibly hard to distinguish which is which. Witnesses are often either biased or deceased, and shootings are very difficult to identify as justified or unjustified after the fact.
Such is the case with Darren Wilson. He was not indicted not because anyone could prove his innocence but because no one could prove what happened to him at all. And as the media reports case after case like his, it’s heartbreaking to know that bad cops are escaping justice while good cops are having their careers and reputations destroyed.
Button cameras would not solve this problem all at once, but they would almost certainly help. A button camera would have protected the reputation of “good” Darren Wilson, allowing him to prove that he was provoked and save his career, or it might have provided evidence against “bad” Darren Wilson, who would either be caught red-handed or have to explain why he turned his camera off just before addressing a suspected thief.
Data backs up the notion that button cameras can save lives. In Rialto, California, police departments recently began outfitting their police with body cameras. In the first year after this change, officers used force 60 percent less often and complaints against officers fell 88 percent.
When an officer approaches a citizen with no camera, he can be many things: a protector, an inquisitor or a thug. But when an officer knows that both his actions and the citizen’s actions will be subject to review, he becomes something else entirely.
He becomes what he was intended to be – an arm of the law.
When the cumulative suspicion and tension of Ferguson came to a head, nothing could stop the riots that ensued – not armored cars, tear gas, batons nor stun guns. But a camera might have made them all unnecessary.
Nathan James is a senior majoring in psychology. His column runs weekly.