Issuing “body cams” to police officers is a logical and, we believe, necessary step.
Cameras aren’t a panacea, but they offer another layer of protection to the public and to police officers.
Members of the public will be much less likely to make false accusations against police if they know there’s a video recording of their encounter with law enforcement. That, in turn, will mean fewer baseless claims and lawsuits filed against public agencies.
Filming also will hold police officers more accountable for their conduct and that, we hope, will help restore public confidence shaken by recent incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
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This isn’t speculation; statistics already are showing that cameras are effective in the field.
As Tribune writer Matt Fountain reported on Sunday, in a 2012 study conducted in Rialto, Calif., citizen complaints of police misconduct dropped by 88 percent after some officers began wearing cameras, and “use of force” incidents dropped by 66 percent.
Locally, three law enforcement agencies already are using cameras: The Sheriff’s Office has 23, mostly for use at the County Jail; the city of Pismo Beach has 17; and Grover Beach has six.
The San Luis Obispo Police Department has no body cams now, but plans to field-test 10 cameras in the coming months. In 2016, department officials plan to request funds to buy a camera for every officer.
In the meantime, the SLO Police Department has formed a work group that includes city officials, as well as defense attorneys and community members, to offer recommendations on the use of body cams.
That’s an excellent idea, because this new technology has given rise to myriad policy questions.
For example, how long should footage be retained? Who should have access to the footage? When should the cameras be used?
How much discretion should officers have to shut off the camera? Should they be permitted to turn them off if a victim or witness is reluctant to speak on camera? What happens to officers who do not turn on their cameras?
To reiterate, we believe police body cams are a valuable tool both for law enforcement officers and the public they serve. We fully expect to see them in almost universal use within the next decade.
But as with any new technology, there’s a learning curve. We urge all agencies to set clear guidelines for use of cameras; to ensure that all officers are properly trained; and to keep the public well informed of how cameras — and the footage — will be used.