As police deploy body cameras, public expectations rise

Charlotte shooting suggests limitations of police body cameras

Kevin Shird, who spent a lot of time in prisons and now spends a lot of time trying to keep other young men out of them, has faith that body cameras on police officers will reduce the number of times they resort to deadly force in encounters with citizens. I wish I could share that faith.

While I've been impressed with reports about body cameras — they're associated, for instance, with significant drops in excessive force complaints in two major cities in California — I nurse a depressing level of doubt about technology's promise because of American excess. We have an excessive number of guns, too many people with untreated mental illness, too many people harboring too much anger, too long a history of racism, and an excessive amount of tension about all of the above.

But, now that I've posted my pessimism at the front door, we'll hear from Shird.

A onetime drug dealer who spent a total of 12 years in state and federal prisons, Shird works now as a youth advocate and public speaker. He's a thoughtful guy who has written two books. The first was a memoir of his foray into the drug culture, his time behind bars and his emergence as a social entrepreneur with a warning for black boys and young men about the deadly risks of the street. His second book, "Uprising in the City," is about the death of Freddie Gray and the harsh social and economic conditions that fueled the unrest in West Baltimore last year.

Shird was a guest on my podcast the other day to talk about his latest book, but the news of the past 10 days became an irresistible subject: The fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Terrence Crutcher, by a police officer in Tulsa, Okla., and the shooting of another black man, Keith Lamont Scott, in Charlotte, N.C.

In the second incident, police claim Scott pointed a gun at the officer who shot him. Scott's family claims he was unarmed. The police chief has refused to release videos of the incident recorded by police dashboard and body cameras. Scott's wife released her video of the shooting Friday. Like almost all such cellphone videos, it is deeply disturbing, difficult to watch and absolutely engrossing. You watch it for answers to the key question — did Scott have a gun, as police claim? — but those answers are not there.

Apparently, the police videos of Scott's death are not much better. Police Chief Kerr Putney told CNN that the videos do not provide "definitive visual evidence" that Scott pointed a gun at the officers who confronted him. Still, Putney maintained, witnesses and other evidence supported the police version that Scott refused to drop his weapon, prompting Putney's officers to shoot.

Here we have evidence of the limitations of body cameras.

Even so, Kevin Shird thinks it was a mistake for Putney to keep the videos from the public. As more departments around the country deploy body cameras, in an effort to record incidents and augment investigations of police-involved shootings, public expectations of transparency rise. Withholding a video only seems to make the public more suspicious of the police, compounding fractures that already exist.

"Most black people support police officers," Shird says. "We know we need police officers in our communities. The problem is, when you have transparency issues when things goes awry — in Charlotte, the delay in releasing the video. Now, if, in fact, in Charlotte, the situation is that this man was armed and they have video, then release the video. If you're telling me that policy is the reason why this video hasn't been released, change the policy — because we don't trust you because of what we've witnessed and what we've seen ... for years.

"We want to trust the police officers in our community," Shird adds, "but it only takes one officer to do something so horrific that it taints the entire relationship [and] we're literally back to square one and rebuilding the relationship."

Shird believes body cameras will make a difference in the long run. For starters, their presence will influence the way police behave toward citizens.

Shird says he had an unnecessarily tense encounter with a black Maryland state trooper on the Baltimore Beltway about three years ago. After pulling Shird over for speeding, the trooper approached his car and asked why he had been speeding — and in the most profane way.

With a body camera, Shird believes, that kind of provocative talk goes away.

The cameras, he says, should also influence the behavior of people who encounter police on the street. "Everybody will know that they are being watched," Shird says. That means everyone will be accountable for their actions.

And that's critical — having a record, removing doubt, reducing suspicion, slowly building trust between police and the citizens they serve. I share some of Shird's optimism, but still feel that depressing weight of American excess.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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