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Body cameras and school police

After a Baltimore City School Police officer was seen slapping, kicking and cursing a student at REACH Partnership School in East Baltimore last week, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton pledged to take another look at the force's training, hiring and recruitment policies. The incident, recorded on video by a teen witness and widely viewed on the Internet, should be a wake-up call for city schools to move forward with equipping the school police force with body cameras for all its officers.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has already announced that the BCPD, which is separate from the school police, will begin issuing body cameras to its officers as quickly as possible, and in principle there's no reason the school police shouldn't do the same. Both forces rely heavily on information provided by residents to do their jobs effectively, and both are hampered in their efforts when communities feel the police can't be trusted. Body cameras aren't a panacea, but they are one of many tools that can help police establish better relations with the public.

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Equipping the school police with body cameras isn't just a kind of insurance policy guaranteeing that police can be held accountable if they misbehave. Although that's important, the most significant effect of the cameras may be in deterring conflicts between officers and the people they encounter before a situation ever escalates into violence. We don't know what the teen at REACH may have said or done before the officer's violent reaction. But it's at least a possibility that the encounter would have ended differently if he and Officer Anthony C. Spence had known their words and actions were being recorded.

In jurisdictions that have adopted the technology, incidents involving police use of force have dropped dramatically, as have citizen complaints. Knowing their actions are being recorded seems to have a restraining effect on officers, while citizens also become more compliant and courteous toward police for the same reason.

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The use of body cameras in schools could pose privacy concerns because those being recorded will often be minors, and alleged juvenile offenders are entitled to have their identities kept secret unless they are charged as adults. But existing protections in the law should be sufficient to prevent the public release of sensitive video just as it does in certain types of cases involving adults.

Some officials have expressed concern about the cost of equipping school police with cameras, but what they should be looking at are the potential costs of not using the technology in a city that has paid out millions of dollars in recent years to settle claims of police misconduct against adults. The city school police could be just a couple of unlucky incidents away from being hit with a similar liability, which would make the cost of using the cameras pale by comparison. If the devices' deterrent effect helps reduce the chances of that happening they might well turn out to be worth their weight in gold over the long run.

More importantly, the devices might help police achieve something that no amount of money can buy: the restoration of a relationship of trust and mutual respect between officers and the communities they serve. The incident at REACH was not the only one in recent months that has frayed the trust between parents, students and the school police, as evidenced by the outcry last year when lawmakers considered allowing those officers to carry guns on school grounds.

Mr. Thornton has often been criticized for not dealing forcefully enough with the school system's many problems, and his pledge to investigate the slapping incident at REACH may not entirely dispel that impression. The system's initial insistence that the youth in the video was not enrolled at REACH and later acknowledgment that he was does not inspire confidence. But requiring city school police to wear body cameras would send an important signal regarding the priority the system places on keeping its students safe and give Mr. Thornton an opportunity to show the kind of leadership parents of city schoolchildren expect.

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