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“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”- George Orwell. On any given night in your household, you might wake up at the sound of thunder cracking in a storm, or the wind howling in the trees outside your window. But what happens when you hear the sound of your door being broken down by a criminal? What do you do? Chances are, your first reaction might be to call the police. This has become common practice in our society today. However, how often do you hear a news story about a police officer shooting an unarmed suspect, and thus, igniting a massive protest. Such stories have been at the forefront of the nation’s attention, and, the news media’s attention. Yet, these court cases are always shrouded in mystery and heresy as the proceeding often disintegrate into a “he said she said” case. However, because of new technology, the public and grand juries alike will be able to see a police officer enforce the law and judge his action based on a small camera mounted on his torso. Police officers should be issued body cameras in order to protect the citizens, protect the police officers themselves, and protect the judicial process.
Body cameras on police have many advantages but one of the main reasons behind them is to protect the citizens against the risk of excessive force by a police officer. In light of the recent protests over the shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Baltimore, Maryland, the public has become concerned about the conduct of police officers and the circumstances under which they exercise the use of deadly force. Obviously the advantage to having a camera mounted on an officer is that the public and the officer’s superiors can evaluate the recording, and have a clear account of the situation. The most important part of this would be that such a recording, after processing, would be a public record. This means that anyone could see and hear what actually happened in the moments leading up to an arrest or the shooting of a subject. For the citizen this means that they know what an officer says to them will be recorded and that leads to more civil exchanges between law enforcement and citizens (provided the citizens are civil in return). In fact, the city of Spokane, Washington has been implementing body cameras on police officer, and in an interview, Chief of Police Frank Straub said of the program when asked about the effect it would have on policing: “I think we’ll have a reduction in complaints. I think it will be good for both the community and the officers. Some of the mystery regarding police interactions will be gone because we will literally be able to say, “Let’s go to the videotape.””
Many however have made several arguments the benefits body cameras have for citizens, but one argument in particular I found very interesting. In an article in Time magazine, Janet Vertesi, an assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, argued that our judicial system should not value the recordings on body cameras because they can still be open to interpretation and it does not guarantee that justice will be served. While compelling, this is a non-argument as supporters of body cameras are not arguing that body cameras are a panacea that will solve every case of excessive force. Rather supporters of body cameras are simply advocating that body camera recordings would be valuable evidence in a trial. Vertesi used the example of the Rodney King case in 1991. In the case, a recording was taken of several white police officers beating Rodney King, an African American. When the case against the police officers was taken to court, the tape of the beating was taken and the officers in the video were acquitted of the charge of excessive force. The author uses this example to argue that body cameras will not cause justice, therefore they are not needed. The author seems not to understand how evidence works. Like anything in our criminal justice system, body camera recordings would be open to interpretation by everyone from the officer’s superiors to a judge and grand jury. The author of the article should remember that nothing can guarantee justice but an honest trial just as it says in the Constitution.
There are benefits not just to the citizens from the use of body cameras on police, but there are benefits to the police officers themselves. In our time, the police officer is under attack literally from the everyday criminals, and from a hostile media and culture. Far too many people in society are willing to provoke police officer and then have someone else only video tape the arrest of the suspect. From there that one clip can be placed on the internet and have millions of views in a matter of hours. From there the police force has a public relations crisis and is all but forced to fire the officer in question. All of this was caused by an incident that has been blown way out of proportion. Even if it turns out that police officer was justified in his conduct, he can never have his job back and really can never show his face in his community again. This is why body cameras benefit police officers. When used properly, they record the whole incident, both the exchange before the arrest and the events that follow. The recordings cannot be tampered with, and cannot be biased like witnesses. This is the greatest benefit to police officers.
Some critics claim that the cost of outfitting every police officer would bankrupt municipal governments with the costs to purchase the cameras and the cost to maintain them. My counterargument for them is, what is more important in a city budget than paying for the security of the men in uniform? If someone is willing to put on the uniform of a police officer and risk their lives each and every day, the least the government could do is enable them to protect their reputation and preserve justice by paying for cameras.
This brings me to my last argument, that body cameras are critical to preserving the integrity of the justice process. As I have previously used as an example, if an officer makes an arrest using excessive force and someone records only the arrest, uploads it to the internet, and then public opinion on the officer even before a formal investigation can be conducted. The media and the public have become judge, jury, and jail warden. However if the incident is recorded in its entirety on a camera attached to the officer and the recording is used in a trial as evidence, then justice can be served for both the suspect in the arrest, and the officer who made the arrest. This is critical in the age of the internet because if police departments can release their own recording of the incident to the public along with a well-worded statement, they can preserve the right of a fair and impartial trial for the police officer. From there, if the grand jury decide that a police officer used excessive force or made an illegal shooting of a suspect, then he or she will answer for that crime. But mob rule should not be able to take over the justice process, because if that happens, we no longer have a fair system worth fighting for.
Although there is a great advantage to having these recordings as evidence, there are many detractors that argue that police recordings should not be viable evidence because of privacy concerns. They argue that having recordings of citizen’s dealings with the police is a violation of that citizen’s privacy rights. In fact some states like Pennsylvania, police audio recordings are not admitted into evidence during a trial, due to the fact that current laws consider police recordings an illegal wiretap but video is admissible. This can be easily solved, just make sure a police officer informs a citizen that he or she is being recorded. There are cases where a body camera has been proven to get guilty pleas for drug based and violent crimes. That to me is a great asset that we are able to take these people off the streets.
As you can see, body cameras have had and will continue to have a great impact on modern policing. As I previously stated, the use of body cameras protects the citizens from actual cases of excessive force, police officers from being falsely accused, and the justice process in both of the ways above. This is a great tool which will help to lead us to better policing and reduction of crime long into the future.
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