Police body cameras have value

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By Sara Foss

Gazette Columnist


Police-worn body cameras are often touted as a way to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable.

The idea is that officers who know they’re being recorded will be on their best behavior — that they’ll be less likely to use excessive force and hostile language when dealing with civilians.

Intuitively, this makes sense.

I’d probably behave a little differently if my employer outfitted me with a camera designed to monitor my every move.

I might procrastinate less, or make a greater effort to appear alert and focused. I’d also, I think it’s safe to say, resent being recorded in this fashion — and I suspect most people feel similarly.

Nevertheless, there’s been a push to equip police officers throughout the country with body cameras, largely because the benefits are believed to outweigh concerns about surveillance and privacy.

Last week the Schenectady City Council voted to accept a $165,000 grant that will provide body cameras for city police officers.

It’s a big step — and it comes at a time when a new study is casting doubt on the notion that body cameras change police behavior.

The study, released last month, found that body cameras worn by more than 2,000 police officers in Washington, D.C., had no discernible impact on officer conduct.

According to the New York Times, “officers equipped with cameras used force and prompted civilian complaints at about the same rate as those who did not have them.”

It’s a counter-intuitive finding, and it raises the question of whether body cameras are worth the investment.

If these cameras don’t do the things we were told they’d do, does it make sense to acquire cameras and equipment for each of the 110 patrol officers on the Schenectady police force?

The answer is yes, so long as we’re honest about what the cameras can and can’t do.

The cameras aren’t a cure for lack of trust in law enforcement or police-civilian interactions that get out of hand, and those expecting to see a dramatic decline in complaints about officer misconduct are likely to be disappointed.

But at a time when too many police-civilian encounters often remain shrouded in mystery even after an investigation has taken place, the cameras should prove a useful tool.

In situations that pit a civilian’s perspective against law enforcement, they’ll provide clarification and transparency, and they’ll also aid in investigation.

They might not prevent police-civilian disputes, but they’ll help determine what happened whenever a dispute arises.

There are a lot of murky situations, such as the 2014 Taser death of a Ballston Spa man, or the death earlier this year of Andrew Kearse in Schenectady police custody, that would look a lot less murky if we could watch them unfold on video.

Body cameras are not a panacea, as the research makes clear.

But they can reveal the truth, and there’s great value in that.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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