Enhancing Police Transparency Takes More Than Body Cameras

December 4th, 2014 by Vernon Herron

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After the highly publicized events which led to the death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer, Darren Wilson, and the varying eye witness accounts that both substantiated and refuted the version of Officer Wilson, there has been a wave of national support for mandatory police body cameras. President Barack Obama recently held a public safety summit at the White House that was attended by police executives, civil rights groups, and political leaders to discuss how the police and the community can bridge the gap of trust that was apparently void in Ferguson. At the conclusion of the summit, President Obama proposed spending $263 million over three years to bolster community policing across the country, including $75 million to help purchase 50,000 body cameras.

President Obama and many police executives reason that wearing body cameras will decrease or eliminate questionable actions by officers in shootings and other cases where the police have been accused of excessive force. Similarly, years ago police departments began installing video cameras in cruisers to record traffic stops. At the time, several of my former police colleagues felt that the use of cameras would only lead to more scrutiny and subsequently more complaints against police officers. I can attest to the fact that not only did it not lead to more complaints, but when complaints were lodged against police officers, it resulted in officers being exonerated and cleared of wrong doing in most cases.

Yet, the presence of video does not always mean we will have a clear understanding of how incidents transpired, or the criminal nature behind the act. In 1992 an amateur videographer recorded the traffic stop and subsequent beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. According to then Police Chief Darrell Gates, officers struck King with batons 53 times and kicked him at least seven times before he was arrested and taken into custody. The police officers in that case were acquitted by a jury in criminal court but found guilty of depriving King of his civil rights in a federal court. While a video existed for the King case, it did not elicit solid evidence leading to the same convictions.

Interpretations and sentiments can vary. When citizens, for instance, review videos of police conduct can they see the “fear” felt by police officers in the performance of their duties? Does the video explain what circumstances outside the view of the camera, such as probable cause, may be in play? Will the officer’s level of training, or lack thereof, come across to a jury or judge reviewing the facts? Will the actions of the officer wearing the equipment be evident since they are behind the camera?

Cameras can capture some facts that police or witnesses may miss or perceive, but cameras should not be viewed as a panacea of bridging the trust gap between the community and the police. Body cameras will without doubt make the lenses a lot clearer when it comes to recording the events leading to the use of deadly force and other actions of the police. However, the real enhancement of transparency between the police and the community comes long before there is another event where citizens question the actions of police officers.

Police officers need more training when it comes to community relations and community members need to be more educated on the dynamics of police tactics. Police department members must reflect the communities in which they serve, while the engagement between police and community should happen continuously for both parties, not only in the aftermath of a tragic event. To this end, the President’s public safety summit also resulted in the development of a task force commissioned to study and make recommendations on how to deal with the strained relationships between police and the public, not just in Ferguson, but across the country. This is a good start, but I have witnessed this story several times in history.

The Rodney King incident was followed by numerous events where the actions of police sparked protest and violence in the community. In each of these cases, a task force was created to address the issues involving the initiation of community policing programs. Unfortunately, over time, after the task force concluded its mission and the communities rebuilt the destruction caused by the civil disturbances, we got comfortable until another case sparked an outcry like the one in Ferguson.

If we are truly committed to bridging the gap between the community and the police, we must not adopt recommendations and strategies of the President’s task force as another program. Most programs have a start and end date and after the money has dissipated, the program ends. Before the President issues one dime to those police departments that want their share of grant monies for body cameras and other initiatives, there should be assurances from police departments and local governments for sustainability of strategies and initiatives. In order for us to be successful this time, we must employ these new strategies not like a “program,” but like a “way of life” both in the police departments and the communities.

I applaud the President and those who attended the summit for restarting the dialogue about the relationship between the community and the police and the perceived lack of transparency, but this issue will arise again if the police and the community are not committed to permanent sustainability.

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