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The benefits of body cameras

The move to equip police officers with body cameras raises some difficult issues related to privacy, public access and data storage, but none of them are insurmountable. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's task force on how to employ them came up with reasonable solutions to those problems, and we expect that the task force created by the legislature and Gov. Larry Hogan will do the same.

State and local government agencies store all kinds of private information already and have well established practices to prevent it from improperly becoming public. Police should be provided certain exceptions for the use of cameras, such as when talking to confidential informants. Video not being used as a part of an ongoing investigation or court case should be erased after a fixed period of time, and police should be restricted from employing facial recognition software to use the data as a means of tracking individuals' whereabouts.

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Just as important, if not more so, will be how police departments use the video. The recent case of University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing, who was charged with murder after his body camera recorded him killing an unarmed man during a traffic stop off campus, shows how crucial such video can be in determining the truth in an officer-involved shooting. But such cases represent only a tiny fraction of the encounters between police and citizens, and while they have a large impact on public perceptions, they are not ultimately what drives the animosity between civilians and officers in some communities. The Freddie Gray case struck such a nerve in Baltimore not just because the young man wound up dead but because of how roughly he was treated as a matter of routine police work.

One of the great hopes of body camera advocates is that the presence of cameras will have a meliorating influence on the behavior of both police and civilians, that both sides will be inclined to treat each other more respectfully in the knowledge that what they're doing is being recorded. There is at least some evidence to suggest that can be the case. Though data is limited because body camera use is in its infancy, some studies have shown drops in both use of force and in complaints against officers when body cameras are employed, as well as declines in assaults on officers and frivolous complaints against them. Given the millions Baltimore has spent to settle police misconduct lawsuits in recent years, the cameras could be well worth their cost on that basis alone.

But the simple presence of cameras obviously doesn't stop all bad behavior. It didn't prevent Mr. Tensing from pulling his gun and shooting, nor did a dashboard camera prevent a Texas officer from quickly escalating an encounter with Sandra Bland, a woman pulled over for failing to use a turn signal when switching lanes. Anyone who watched the video could see there was no reason for her to be in jail, but evidently no one did until she was found dead in a cell three days later. Likewise, a Baltimore police surveillance camera operator alerted superiors of an incident last year in which an officer repeatedly punched a man at a bus stop North and Greenmount Avenues, but the officer remained on the force without sanction for months despite the apparent contradictions between his police report and the video footage.

Police need to use the video footage they get from body cameras (and all other sources) as a means to ensure officers are following proper procedures and training in seemingly routine encounters, not just those that result in a complaint, a lawsuit or a death. If telemarketing companies review recordings to ensure quality service, should the police not do the same? Such recordings can be an invaluable tool not only to spot potentially troublesome behavior but also to reinforce the good. Inexperienced officers could benefit tremendously if the videos are used properly for training.

Many view the state body camera task force as a precursor to legislation requiring all Maryland police departments to adopt the devices. We hope that is the case. Baltimore City has gotten most of the attention when it comes to the potential for body cameras to improve police-community relations, and not without reason, but it's not the only place that could benefit from them. Baltimore County has not experienced the same kinds of problems the city has in police-community relations, but its police department recently went through the same kind of exercise the city did in thinking through the implications of body cameras. The county has not made a decision on whether to adopt the cameras, but we would be surprised if it doesn't eventually. Any department is just one bad traffic stop away from landing in the national spotlight for complaints about police brutality — whether justly or not.

The complications of body cameras are substantial, but they can be managed. The benefits, though, can't be achieved any other way. Maryland should be a leader not just in adopting the cameras but for using them to their full potential.

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