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News Opinion Editorial

The virtue of video

Demonstrators in Baltimore are planning to return to the streets tonight in support of residents of Ferguson, Mo., where marchers have been protesting the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager since Aug. 9. The death of Michael Brown, 18, has become a touchstone for concerns about the police use of excessive force against African-American men, and tonight's event will be the second held in Baltimore in solidarity with the demonstrations in Ferguson.

As they did during the first march here last Thursday, Baltimore City police are again planning to videotape the gathering at City Hall, a decision that has alarmed some of the event's organizers, who question why and how the tapes will be used. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has also expressed fears that the taping is aimed at intimidating peaceful marchers and dissuading them from exercising their constitutional right to freely assemble.

While we understand those concerns, we believe that in this case they are misplaced. Both the police and the demonstrators have a huge stake in ensuring the event remains nonviolent, and to that end the presence of cameras in the hands of both the police and those participating in the demonstrations is likely overall to make the event safer for everyone.

After last week's demonstrations a police spokesman said the department was recording the event primarily for training purposes, including evaluating the performance of its officers and complying with the "best practices" recommended by Police Executive Research Forum, a respected think tank in the law-enforcement field. Police can use the recordings to identify and prosecute people who incite violence at such events, but the recordings also act as a deterrent to the excessive use of force by police themselves.

Moreover, the ability to record the behavior of people at large public events isn't a one-way street. Maryland courts have repeatedly upheld the right of people to videotape interactions between police and members of the public. In one case, a Harford County judge threw out wiretapping charges against a motorcyclist who secretly videotaped his own traffic stop, and in another a Baltimore City police offer was fired after being caught on tape berating a teenage skateboarder at the Inner Harbor.

The fact that relatively inexpensive technologies such as cell phones and tablet computers now allow anyone to tape how police treat citizens — and in some cases document clear evidence of misconduct — has not gone unnoticed by law-enforcement authorities. Knowing that their actions are subject to scrutiny at any time by the ubiquitous camera-wielding public undoubtedly has given many officers pause before escalating a confrontation.

To us that suggests that protecting the public safety would benefit significantly from having more — rather than fewer — cameras at events like tonight's demonstration at City Hall. And it's not just protest events like the one organized for Ferguson that would be safer. Baltimore police already have announced that in the future they plan to videotape all large public gatherings that take place in the city, including the New Year's Eve celebration, the upcoming Star-Spangled Spectacular celebrating Baltimore's role in the War of 1812, and possibly even major sporting events such as the Preakness and Ravens or Orioles playoff games.

No one relishes the idea of living in a society under constant surveillance by the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. But it's unrealistic to think the clock can be turned back. There are already hundreds of surveillance cameras in downtown Baltimore that are operated either by the police department or private property owners, making it nearly impossible to walk around the Inner Harbor without getting one's picture taken.

The next step is for police themselves to wear cameras on their uniforms so that all their interactions with the public are automatically recorded. The Laurel police department is the only one in Maryland to equip all of its officers with the devices, but its chief reports that citizens' complaints of excessive use of force by his officers have fallen drastically as a result of the change. Just think where we would be now if the officer in Ferguson had been wearing a video camera. Perhaps Michael Brown would still be alive today, or perhaps he would not, but we would at least have some real evidence about what happened — and that alone might have been enough to avoid the terrible conflicts now erupting daily in Ferguson. Police everywhere should take heed.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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