Increasingly, police incidents breaking in the media leave all of us asking, “What really happened and who was at fault?”
Cell phone or closed circuit video give hints, conflicting testimony often raises doubts, and the ensuing debate often leaves the public’s confidence in law enforcement severely shaken.
For all our benefit, we should have a neutral account of police encounters in Connecticut.
The new Connecticut state law that will provide funding for the implementation and use of body cameras by every police officer in Connecticut is beneficial not only for the general public, but for law enforcement as well.
Body cameras allow the average citizen a resolute ground from which to defend him or herself in the event an officer oversteps the boundaries of his or her job. For the police, video documentation will protect them against frivolous accusations or worse, costly lawsuits. Our law enforcement agents deserve tools to adequately defend themselves against such claims.
Currently, we are left to depend on memories that may fade, witness accounts which are notoriously unreliable, and a deterioration of events into differing narratives with little hope of meaningful reconciliation. Video evidence supplied by a body camera can provide an unbiased account that will endure over time and which may provide recourse for victims.
To mitigate concerns regarding privacy, lawmakers have placed a number of conditions on the use of body cams. For example, the officer must notify the recorded party at the first available opportunity that recording is taking place; except in special situations where immediate notice is required, such as a non-emergency visit to a home, or when an individual wishes to anonymously report a crime.
The cameras should be used only to record specific police-citizen interaction, not protests, rallies, or activities at places of worship.
Officers should be required to activate the camera at the start of every encounter and only turn it off at the conclusion, unless requested by the recorded party. The cameras are only effective when used consistently and appropriately adhering to departmental policies, otherwise the technology will only protect the police and further erode the public’s trust in law enforcement. Officers should not be allowed to turn the camera off and on without sufficient reason. If officers engage in “editing on the fly,” true transparency, the main goal of the body camera, will be lost.
There needs to be a clearly defined system in place which automatically “flags” and preserves videos of importance, such as when force is used, an arrest is made, or when a complaint is filed by the officer or the person involved in the incident. These “flagged” videos should be retained for three years. In order to protect everyone’s privacy, the video should be deleted if not flagged within three months—an ample amount of time for either party to raise complaints about an incident.
The unfortunate truth is that we live in a post-Ferguson world where police-civilian relations are undeniably strained. The reputations of good officers and departments are damaged by the actions of a few bad actors. Perhaps the best and only way to begin mending this relationship is to increase transparency and accountability for all parties.
A study done by researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology was conducted on policing with body-worn-cameras in Rialto, California in 2012. The study demonstrated the effectiveness of body cameras, finding use-of-force by officers fell by 59 percent and reports against officers fell by 87 percent versus the previous year.
When it’s just you and a police officer alone on the side of the road, it’s good to have a camera recording what happens.
Stephen Glassman is the Executive Director and David McGuire is the Legislative and Policy Director of the ACLU of Connecticut.