Editorials

Using cameras to give cop’s-eye views of confrontations could help police and public

A Los Angeles police officer wears a body camera during a demonstration for the media in January. Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a plan this week to equip every officer on the Los Angeles police force with such a camera. The department has been field testing body cameras on a small number of its 9,900 officers. Nationally, about 1 in 6 officers has been outfitted with a camera.
A Los Angeles police officer wears a body camera during a demonstration for the media in January. Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a plan this week to equip every officer on the Los Angeles police force with such a camera. The department has been field testing body cameras on a small number of its 9,900 officers. Nationally, about 1 in 6 officers has been outfitted with a camera. Associated Press file

There is no device or technology that can substitute for good old community policing when it comes to building trust between law enforcement and the public. But using body cameras can help keep that trust from being broken in the first place, and local and state police agencies that haven’t embraced them yet should.

That includes Sacramento Police Department, which has begun to test body cameras on volunteers. Mayor Kevin Johnson on Tuesday pressed the police chief to employ body cameras and to look at other ways to re-engage with the community.

Other local police agencies, such as the Sacramento County sheriffs, Roseville, Citrus Heights and Stockton police departments, have either started testing body cameras or are starting to research them, as The Bee’s Marissa Lang reported. That’s good. The massive Los Angeles Police Department announced earlier this week that it was buying 7,000 cameras for its officers to use. Law enforcement agencies that aren’t looking at body cameras ought to do so soon.

For one thing, there’s federal money to defray the cost. President Barack Obama earlier this month promised $75 million in matching grants to help local police departments across the country buy the cameras, which can cost $500 to $1,000 apiece.

More importantly, giving the public a cop’s-eye view during encounters with dangerous people could go a long way toward quelling protest later.

“It gives the opportunity for the world to see what the officers saw,” California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow told an editorial board member Thursday.

That would have been useful last week, when a plainclothes CHP officer pulled his firearm on protesters during a violent protest in Oakland after his partner was attacked. A journalists’ camera caught the moment, but what if a body camera had caught what the officer faced – an angry crowd with sticks and bottles, and a criminal who had kicked his partner in the face?

Or how would the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., last summer have played out in the public if we could have seen what Officer Darren Wilson saw? Would there have been understanding instead of outrage? We’ll never know.

Farrow said that he is moving deliberately on the question of whether to use the body cameras and if so, how. Highway Patrol cars already are equipped with cameras, but they can’t capture what happens in a foot pursuit.

We realize that body cameras are no panacea to the officer-involved killings that have roiled the nation, prompting mass protests. Especially if they are misused or inconsistently used.

Farrow and Sacramento police are right to take the time to study what it would mean to put cameras on police officers. They must develop clear and consistent rules about when to use the cameras. Turning them on and off randomly could do worse damage to the public trust.

But used smartly, body cameras can make both officers and the public safer.

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