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Cameras on cops

Sooner or later city police will have to adopt body cameras

There was no small irony in Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's veto Monday of a City Council bill that would have required city police to be equipped with body cameras. For one thing, the mayor herself has said she supports the idea of officers wearing the devices to record their interactions with the public. For another, her rejection of the council's measure came on the same day President Barack Obama was urging police departments around the county to adopt the technology.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake and the council have been at loggerheads for months now over how and when the city will adopt the cameras. The mayor says she's awaiting the report of a task force she convened earlier this year to resolve the legal and practical issues raised by the devices. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other city lawmakers don't deny the importance of such questions but say they can be worked out in the normal course of business, as has been done in other departments.

Despite those differing perspectives, however, what seems indisputable is that wearable cameras for police officers is an idea whose time has come. New York recently became one of the first large U.S. cities to begin equipping its officers with the devices, and the District of Columbia is embarking on a pilot program to see whether their use would lead to a decline in citizen complaints of police brutality or misconduct. In his remarks Monday, Mr. Obama described the cameras as a vital first step toward restoring a relationship of trust between police officers and communities they serve.

Mr. Obama's remarks came in the context of a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. The killing of Mr. Brown, who was African-American, by Mr. Wilson, who is white, set off weeks of unrest, including incidents of violence and looting, that resumed last month after the announcement of the grand jury decision. The president was only stating the obvious when he said the suspicion and distrust of police revealed by that episode was not unique to Ferguson but reflected feelings in minority communities across country that the law is stacked against them and that their lives are not valued by those who enforce it.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake's reluctance to move more quickly to adopt police body cameras in Baltimore is understandable, up to a point. The council bill made no provision for how the city would pay for the devices, or for the cost of storing the images they recorded. The mayor says it makes no sense to require officers who rarely come into contact with the public to wear cameras and that it would be irresponsible to adopt them without first addressing the privacy and other questions they raise, such as the admissibility of evidence gathered from their use, how long the images would be kept and whether the public would have access to the data.

But these are surmountable questions. Other police departments have been using the devices for years and virtually all of them have found a way to integrate the technology into their normal operations. Baltimore may be starting from scratch, but it also should be able to learn enough from the experience of other departments to quickly get up to speed.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake says she wants to be able to introduce a spending proposal regarding the cameras to the City Council by April of next year. That's more than enough time for her task force to complete its work, and if she can stick to it the result will surely be better than rushing into something that's not fully thought through. But we can't allow this to join the roster of issues where conflict has led to paralysis, as in the city's efforts to resurrect its speed camera program and upgrade its phone system.

Thankfully, the distrust between Baltimore residents and the police has not reached anything like the level we have seen recently in Ferguson, but it is a real barrier to making the city a safer place. Body cameras may not single handedly solve the problem, but they surely represent a step in the right direction.

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