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Watching The Watchers

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have drawn a great deal of attention to the issue of police brutality. One idea to address the problem involves equipping all police officers on patrol with body-worn cameras, which people apparently call BWCs. It is beyond me how people are even debating this.

Study after study suggests that cops behave better when they wear BWCs. Compared to cops who wear BWCs, cops who do not wear BWCs are involved in many more use-of-force incidents and receive far more complaints. When two jurisdictions right here in Arizona, Mesa and Phoenix, had some of their officers wear BWCs, things were no different.

In Mesa, there were 40 percent fewer total complaints and 75 percent fewer use of force complaints for officers with cameras. In Phoenix, one officer was fired after someone filed a complaint. The department reviewed footage from the incident along with video from prior shifts and found repeated instances of verbal abuse, profanity, and threats from the officer. He would probably still be terrorizing the public had there not been video to back up that complaint.

On top of that, there is a real possibility that BWCs aid legitimate law enforcement while discouraging meritless litigation against officers. A defendant whose crime was captured on video is probably going to be more likely to plead. A would-be police brutality plaintiff is probably going to be discouraged by a video showing no brutality. Video is neither pro-defendant nor pro-state. It is pro-truth, and I cannot imagine why any honest prosecutor or police officer would have a problem with there being more of it.

So why would anyone oppose BWCs? As far as I can tell, pretty much all of the opposition falls into one of two groups, one needlessly fixated on privacy and the other generally resistant to police accountability altogether.

If anything, I imagine the privacy of the public will be promoted by the use of BWCs. I have had more clients than I can count claim that officers entered their homes, searched their cars, and looked through their belongings without asking. Had the officers been wearing BWCs, I would have been able to prove it.

On top of that, arguments about the effect of videotaping on domestic violence or rape victims, the official mascots of power-hungry law and order folks everywhere, all but ignore reality. Victims’ interviews are already recorded more often than not, and police frequently take their pictures as well. All of that, along with all sorts of other personal information, is then disclosed to the defense. Any damage to the victims is already mitigated by various rules governing redaction and disclosure. It is a non-issue that would at most require a little tweaking of the existing rules should BWCs become commonplace.

Finally, the no-accountability group seems spearheaded by police unions, who worry that the cameras will be used to conduct workforce surveillance. Great, I say. When we give the sort of incredible power we do to armed individuals among us, they need to be monitored.

Comments from Jeff Roorda, a Democrat in Missouri’s House of Representatives and vice president of a police charity supporting the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, pretty much sum up the hypocrisy and desire to shirk police accountability that seem to define BWC opposition from the law enforcement crowd:

Instead of the cameras being there to protect the officers, they get disciplined for petty stuff constantly — for violating the uniform code, or rolling through a stop sign for an urgent call, or for not turning the camera on,” Roorda said. “That’s one of the hottest issues for my guys. They’re tired of the nitpicking, and that’s what the cameras have been used to do.

“Or for killing young black men for no reason,” I think he forgot to include.

Basically, the powerful people who cite us for violating all sorts of silly codes, for rolling through stop signs when we think it is important, and for not reporting as we should are upset that someone is watching them now too. They are the nitpickers, not the nitpickees, according to Roorda. That also happens to be exactly that sort of mentality that makes BWCs so important.

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2 Responses to "Watching The Watchers"

  1. Mark Draughn says:

    Shorter Jeff Coorda: Waaaah! Doing a job right is so hard!

    I find it amusing when police complain about nitpicking, considering the kinds of things they ding people for: Rolling through stop signs when there’s no conflicting traffic, cracked windshield, burned out tail light, failure to affix tax stickers, sloppy parking, not identifying yourself, standing around on the sidewalk too long…

    1. Matt Brown says:

      But they’re keeping us safe! If we don’t give them all sorts of powers, it will be carnage on the street as people with warrants for violent crimes who won’t provide ID to officers blow through every stop sign with no visibility through their cracked windshields and the families in minivans behind them ram into them because of their broken tail lights. Think about the children!

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