Body cams may not help, but can’t hurt

This February 2000 photo shows Charley Saturmin Robinet after his arrest for robbery. Robinet was killed Sunday on Los Angeles’ skid row.
This February 2000 photo shows Charley Saturmin Robinet after his arrest for robbery. Robinet was killed Sunday on Los Angeles’ skid row. Ventura County Sheriff’s Office

Like so many police shootings, the death of a Cameroonian immigrant in a Los Angeles skid row encampment last weekend has left a trail of unanswered questions and accusations with racial overtones.

What it hasn’t left is much doubt about what the incident looked like. At least four cameras – one on a bystander’s cell phone, two on surrounding buildings and a body cam worn by an officer who responded – captured the sidewalk scuffle that escalated into death.

As the public was reminded this week with the closure of the federal probe into the killing of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., a case with no digital record degenerates more easily than most into competing stories.

Investigators found that Ferguson’s institutions were so hostile to African Americans that police and municipal court employees sent racist emails. But with no video, there was little to counter the white officer’s claim that he feared for his life when he shot 18-year-old Michael Brown to death in August after hassling him for jaywalking.

The incident will no doubt remain disputed forever, even with the likelihood that police reforms will be forced by the U.S. Department of Justice. Police body cams are among the federal recommendations to come out of the Ferguson shooting, and President Barack Obama has requested $75 million in federal funds to distribute to departments nationwide.

This is a valuable step. With any luck, the LAPD shooting will offer a useful test case. Video is no guarantee that the public will like the outcome of a police shooting – the New York grand jury’s decision not to indict the officers who killed Eric Garner last year showed that – but video can’t hurt.

Use-of-force cases are not only wrenching, but costly to taxpayers. Most police shootings are justified, but many also are contested, and the law in most states makes it too easy for communities to be left with the impression that authorities act with impunity.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called for lower standards of proof for federal civil rights cases, another step in the right direction. As it stands, officers who kill civilians in the line of duty need to say, in essence, that they feared for their safety in order to meet federal statutory requirements that they did not “willfully” violate the constitutional rights of suspects. Police work, by its nature, involves fear.

So a less partial record is good, and not just for civilians. The cellphone footage in the L.A. case, for instance, testifies to the difficulties of policing the teeming dystopia that is skid row.

Bystanders audibly jeer at police; at one point, a woman picks up a dropped police baton and attacks them. Less clear, from that angle, is whether the man on the ground really was a threat to the police clustered around him. But even if the body cam doesn’t answer that question, after Ferguson, it feels better to have it than not.