Of­fi­cers, turn on your body cams

A po­lice shoot­ing in Minneapolis highlights a na­tion­wide prob­lem.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

“WHY DON’T we have footage from body cam­eras?” asked Betsy Hodges, the mayor of Minneapolis, af­ter a lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer fa­tally shot Aus­tralian na­tional Jus­tine Da­mond on July 15. “Why were they not ac­ti­vated? We all want an­swers to those ques­tions,” she con­tin­ued. Ci­ti­zens should want those an­swers, too.

Ms. Da­mond, a med­i­ta­tion teacher, called the po­lice to re­port a pos­si­ble rape near her home. She called again eight min­utes later to re­port more scream­ing, and was told of­fi­cers were on their way. Ex­actly how that led to her killing is un­clear, even though both re­spond­ing of­fi­cers were equipped with cam­eras — be­cause the de­vices were not turned on. As a re­sult, in­ves­ti­ga­tors, ci­ti­zens and griev­ing fam­ily mem­bers are left with fewer an­swers than they need and de­serve.

While the Minneapolis po­lice de­part­ment has sig­nif­i­cantly ex­panded its body cam­era pro­gram in the past year, the tragic shoot­ing of Ms. Da­mond highlights the gaps still re­main­ing. This month, lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tion KSTP found that Minneapolis po­lice of­fi­cers with body cam­eras recorded less than 20 min­utes of footage for ev­ery eight-hour shift — or a to­tal of five or six hours of footage a month. Given that of­fi­cial pro­ce­dure re­quires of­fi­cers to activate their cam­eras dur­ing all traf­fic stops, searches and en­coun­ters in­volv­ing crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, this fig­ure is much lower than it should be.

A sim­i­lar pat­tern emerges across the coun­try. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Jus­tice De­part­ment dis­cov­ered that of­fi­cers in Al­bu­querque reg­u­larly failed to turn on their cam­eras due to lack of train­ing and over­sight. A study of the Den­ver Po­lice De­part­ment found that just a quar­ter of in­ci­dents in­volv­ing force were recorded. The na­tional fig­ures are even more dire: Ac­cord­ing to The Post’s data­base of fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings, 554 peo­ple have been shot and killed by the po­lice this year — but there is body cam­era footage for just 57 of those en­coun­ters.

Although some de­part­ments have been slow to adopt the tech­nol­ogy due to pri­vacy and cost con­cerns, ev­i­dence sug­gests that body cam­eras can serve an im­por­tant pur­pose, fa­cil­i­tat­ing ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency. But un­less there is greater en­force­ment, they will sim­ply be ex­pen­sive pieces of dec­o­ra­tion. In the con­tin­u­ing fall­out from the shoot­ing of Ms. Da­mond, Minneapolis Po­lice Chief Janeé Harteau re­signed Fri­day. That’s fine, but a more sys­temic re­sponse is also needed. Po­lice de­part­ments in Minneapolis and else­where should con­sider more ex­pan­sive train­ing and reg­u­lar au­dits to en­sure of­fi­cers are us­ing their cam­eras ap­pro­pri­ately.

Body cam­eras are no sub­sti­tute for rig­or­ous train­ing and other poli­cies de­signed to curb po­lice vi­o­lence. They can, how­ever, help re­build trust be­tween law en­force­ment and com­mu­ni­ties. They have the po­ten­tial to be a use­ful polic­ing tool — but only if of­fi­cers activate them while polic­ing.

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