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Arm police with cameras to protect public

The efficient operation of a market economy, such as the U.S., depends upon the free flow of information. When transactions occur in secret, there is the potential for one party to take advantage of another. This is especially true in situations where violence is an option.

Police, in particular, face life-threatening situations daily and occasionally need to use force to resolve the issues. However, force, without transparency and/or oversight, is too easily abused by either party. Body cameras, which are being used in many jurisdictions, are one way to provide the needed transparency. They provide oversight, while at the same time protecting the police from unreasonable litigation in situations where force is required.

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We are heartened by Baltimore's embrace of them, despite the bickering between the City Council and mayor over how the program should be implemented within the city police department. These cameras will protect both the police and the public by reminding us all that actions have consequences, increasing the probability that we will all be more civil.

Police body cameras are used to record the interaction of police and the public, forcing both to be responsible for their actions. Transparency is essential for the efficient and equitable success of democracy. Open meeting laws are designed to give citizens the information they need to understand decisions made by their elected representatives and to make it easier to hold the representatives responsible for their actions. Speed cameras are said to reduce accidents and speeding by making drivers responsible for their actions. The impact of the lack of transparency and the resulting actions can be seen in the cases of ISIS and the Ukrainian rebels wearing masks and police wearing military armor. The former protects the identity of the soldiers so that they may, in the future, participate in undercover activities and not currently be held responsible for their actions. The latter physically protects the police from harm.

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In both cases, concealing the identity of the individual makes them part of a group, rather than subject to their conscience. The only people who can associate them as individuals with their actions are insiders who agree with — or are at least likely to try to justify — their actions. This allows either "groupthink" or unquestioned carrying out of directions of (potentially unscrupulous) leaders. It allows (or potentially encourages) acting out anger without perceived consequences.

This lack of transparency does not guarantee inappropriate behavior, but it does decrease the perceived consequences and increase the attachment to the group identity. This makes the protection of the group a higher priority than protecting the rights of "the other." This allows unreasonable behavior to be treated as normal within the group, immune to evaluation by uninvolved parties or their families and communities.

Democracy works well when individuals are well informed and offer independent input to decisions. Collectively — with open exchange — we can seek solutions to problems that do not have easy answers in such a way that the collective good is served. Together, we can assure that the weak are protected without unduly compromising our economic system. If we "check our conscience at the door," the loudest — or most assertive — voice will hold sway. The minority will likely be, at best, ignored; at worst, abused. With transparency, all parties are more likely to make the best choice for all concerned.

Without the transparency that body cameras provide, use of power to solve the conflicts the police face will likely assure that these problems will fester and return in a more virulent form in the future. ISIS, Ferguson, sectarian violence, the various genocide episodes we have seen in recent years, Al Shebob, sexual violence/abuse, etc., are just a few examples of the unresolved situations where transparency is/was needed, and where lack of transparency and abuse of power foster(ed) continuation of the negative outcomes.

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Charles Scott and Fred Derrick are professors of economics for Loyola University Maryland's Sellinger School of Business and Management. Their emails are cscott@loyola.edu and fderrick@loyola.edu.

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