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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Federal law enforcement agencies will require body cameras for officers. Others should too

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Federal law enforcement agencies will require body cameras for officers. Others should too

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In recent years, more and more police departments have been choosing to strap their officers with body cameras — a move that boosts transparency in an era of skepticism about police authority.

This transparency benefits all because body cams memorialize police action, yielding points of verification in situations that call for review and evaluation.

The push for police reform following the death of George Floyd has resulted in state requirements for police body cams, with six states mandating the use of such cameras in the past year. Many municipal police forces have opted to use cameras without an outside legal mandate.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2016 (one of the more recent studies on the issue) that many law enforcement agencies across the country had purchased body-worn cameras for police. Voluntarily. The Rialto (California) Police Department published in 2014 the results of a study that found that use-of-force incidents were reduced by half and citizen complaints fell by 90% following the use of body cams. These numbers are telling: When officers know their conduct can be reviewed, they appear to be more likely to toe the line in their interactions with civilians.

Now, the U.S. Justice Department will require federal agents to don cameras when performing arrests or searching buildings, overturning a past policy that restricted their use. It’s a good move. The Justice Department’s previous stance against the use of body cams was based on concern that cameras would interfere with agents’ investigative work, much of which involves the use of confidential sources. This is reasonable.

But there is an easy solution: If the cameras will interfere with an officer’s ability to do the job, it shouldn’t be worn. The new federal policy addresses this by requiring cameras only during the execution of arrests and searches.

Filming interactions between law enforcement and the public raises questions about the use of the resulting bodycam footage. Privacy issues are legitimate considerations. This is where an independent commission can be tapped for input in individual circumstances and for guidance as to general rules. These concerns should not be a barrier to the use of body cameras.

The fact is that cameras are being used already to reduce police interaction with the public and to aid officers in investigations. Think traffic cameras; they are a ubiquitous convenience for police agencies that use the footage to nab people accused of everything from speeding to criminal activity. Using cameras during public interactions with citizens is another way of aiding police. Footage gives an officer’s perspective. It gives verification. It yields a subconscious deterrent to overreaction in potentially volatile situations.

Law enforcement body cameras should be standard operating procedure — a method of “trust, but verify.” The inconvenient truth is that the trusting relationship between police and the public in this country is damaged. Increased use of body cameras could be a step toward repair.


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