As a former law enforcement officer who takes great pride in the 34 years I spent in the profession, I am deeply saddened by the many recent incidents which have called into question the conduct, ethics and integrity of law enforcement officers all over our nation. Beyond the personal tragedies flowing from these tragic encounters, these events have seriously eroded the trust and confidence in one of the basic tenets of our free society: fair and equal justice for all.
Every law enforcement officer takes an oath to ethically and impartially serve his or her community. Those who choose to assume the additional task of supervising, managing and leading their organizations have a primary responsibility to ensure every officer maintains the highest standards of professionalism expected of their critical role in our nation. Unfortunately, while the vast majority of officers live up to that expectation, over the past four decades, too many notable cases of police misconduct have dishonored the profession and tainted the trust and respect the majority of officers have worked so hard to build.
It will be up to the appropriate judicial or administrative body in each of these recent cases to determine the facts and provide appropriate outcomes. But what do we do in the meantime? In a recent commentary — “What can we do about police brutality?” (April 30) — Leonard Pitts posed a question to all of us: What can I do?
So, looking to our own communities, I thought about the question. What reasonable actions can we take to ensure accountability on either side of these volatile confrontations? What can we do to help rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect and to serve? What can we do right now?
It is increasingly clear that technology, specifically video recording, has become the “gold standard” for making knowledgeable, rational and appropriate decisions in these instances of confrontation. Although initially resisted by some in law enforcement, video cameras in police vehicles have become a “best practice” standard for most departments. While not given as much media coverage, in the vast majority of these confrontations, both verbal and physical, video evidence conclusively demonstrates police officers respond appropriately when they do have to use force. In those cases when the officers responded outside department policies or legal justifications, the evidence is there for departments and the citizens to take necessary action.
It is time to take the next step. Since retiring from active law enforcement in 2002, I am now a licensed private investigator specializing in alleged employee misconduct investigations in the public sector. In my investigations, video evidence has become more prevalent and available from the agencies, employees and community members. Most notably, in the past two years, body camera technology has been a “game changer” in evaluating interactions between officers and community members. First, body cameras go with officers wherever they go. They do not have the limitations of field of vision that comes with fixed cameras in police vehicles. Second, when multiple officers are involved in an incident, multiple recordings provide many different perspectives to view the interactions and conversations that initiate and then document the confrontation. Third, the mobility of the cameras allows officers to identify other witnesses and document their observations at the time of the incident. Fourth, while officers are aware that the “camera is rolling,” initially many citizens are not.
Anecdotally, officers have shown that, in some instances, citizens become remarkably more restrained and calm when officers let them know their actions are being recorded, thereby defusing heated confrontations.
Therefore, I believe the implementation of body cameras for all field law enforcement officers would be one of the best and most effective steps we can take for our communities. I have personally seen the benefits of body cameras during my investigations. They provide definitive evidence in volatile and emotional confrontations. They ensure those who feel they have been the victims of police abuse and those officers who have been accused will have an objective record of the events. They provide the best opportunity to department administrators, city leaders and the criminal justice system to obtain fair and just resolutions to these difficult incidents. While only one part of a bigger solution, I firmly believe it will help restore confidence and build trust between members of law enforcement and their communities. And, it’s something we can do now!