Did some City Council members just start thinking in-depth about police body cameras?
In delaying funding for new cameras – due mostly to questions about ultimate public access – several council members sounded like near-novices on the subject.
One worried about footage being released “willy-nilly.” Whatever that means.
For decades, mug shots have been released upon request. Police reports are routinely released, sometimes with victim, witness or informant names protected.
What cameras would capture is merely another form of recording an official act of government and law enforcement in interacting with a community.
This stuff isn’t new. Police-chase footage has been been broadcast since I was a TV reporter 20 years ago. What about the TV show “COPS?” In that long-running program, cameras accompany police here, there and almost everywhere.
Most cogent, of course, is the influx of sometimes highly disturbing videos we’ve seen in the last year or two of black men, mostly, being shot and wounded, or killed, during police encounters.
Even more disturbing: the fact that we actually see or hear so few.
The Washington Post, in an extraordinary investigation, reported there were 986 deaths from police shootings in 2015. One year. 986. On how many of those cases have we seen any video? A handful at most.
The report said the vast majority of the victims were armed. It also said, “although black men represent 6 percent of the U.S. population, they made up nearly 40 percent of those who were killed while unarmed.”
Soon, nearly every officer will have a body camera, in Durham and Durham County, just as nearly every resident has a cell phone that serves almost as a body camera.
Generally speaking, police and deputies want to be in charge of when footage is public. Generally speaking, they aren’t keen on the public seeing and hearing everything they do and say.
That needs to stop: no more easy discretion inside the blue’s walls about what gets out and what doesn’t. And council or an independent panel shouldn’t decide what to release, either.
All footage should be released when properly requested, with crime victims’ faces covered up, and victims’ names said out loud concealed in situations where state law allows it.
Also, identities of undercover officers could be masked, as well as some carefully defined instances where fine-tuned policing or investigative tactics may be revealed. If there are very specific concerns about some footage, law enforcement, journalists and community groups can tackle them.
Would DPD and the Sheriff’s Office have to hire someone to spend a lot of time on video requests? Sure. It’s a hi-tech era.
The city could shave about $1 million from the projected $81 million cost of a new headquarters and pay a new public affairs staffer $50,000 a year for 20 years to do this work and other work.
The default position should be to release. Yes, this is going to reveal suspects who are never convicted, just as mug shots and police reports do.
Bottom line: it should be hard to withhold footage, not easy.
That said, with so much recent local plodding along on the body camera issue – on top of years of inattention – I think it’s OK now to delay again.
Why? Because we could have a new police chief by early April.
It’s quite likely that candidates are being asked right now about body cameras, transparency, and police-community relations in high-crime areas. So why not wait until the new chief starts work to finalize the new body camera policy and its funding?
It doesn’t make sense to keep laboring without the next leader of the department weighing in. I hope the new chief is all about heavy use of cameras and regular release of footage.
There shouldn’t be anything to hide.