Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Carlton: It's time for body cameras for cops

Even as the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., slowly plays out with the world watching, a lot of people clearly believe they already know the truth:

This was an overzealous cop from a mostly white department policing a mostly black community, with the victim both unarmed and black.

Or, this 18-year-old who had just committed a robbery was the aggressor when he crossed paths with police.

But what if there was video of the shooting, with the potential to show dispassionately and exactly what happened?

What if one day police routinely record their encounters with the public?

Last year and long before Ferguson, Sarasota police Chief Bernadette DiPino was looking at police body cameras — cop cams, some call them. They're worn on officers' collars, hats or sunglasses to record a traffic stop, police call or encounter. This month, the Sarasota City Commission voted to use a federal grant of about $36,000 for a yearlong pilot program to equip officers with 24 of those cameras.

"I think it modifies people's behavior — both police officers and citizens," DiPino told me this week.

And yes, it's hard to miss the potential benefit for both police and the policed — no matter who it benefits in the end. "Any time you record an incident and you have the facts right in front of you, I think that builds up trust," DiPino says.

Okay, so some of us do not love the ever-present surveillance, security and sundry cameras that are now part of our daily lives, the American Civil Liberties Union in particular. But even the ACLU sees police cameras' win-win potential for "helping protect the public against police misconduct, and … helping protect police against false accusations of abuse." With the right policies in place, of course.

Here's another buy-in: Tampa criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor Lyann Goudie calls it a great idea that cuts both ways for law enforcement and defendants.

"It just makes everything that much easier to sort through and resolve in the end," she says.

Progressive police departments are paying attention. The Tampa Police Department intends to outfit 20 officers in each of the city's three districts to test them out. Chief Jane Castor says she expects these cameras in every police department in the United States in the next five years.

And the new chief in St. Petersburg sounds interested in their potential. "I'd like to look at them to see what they can and can't do," Chief Tony Holloway told me this week. "I think it would be a great tool down the road" — particularly in specific situations like civil unrest, he said.

Studies, like one under way by the University of South Florida working with the Orlando Police Department, are still assessing the impact. But one California police department has reported dramatic drops in both the use of force by officers and complaints against police.

Which only makes sense when there's a tiny camera on hand.

No doubt, we'll see glitches and complications. Will a camera's presence make people less likely to approach a cop? Will some officers make self-serving choices on what they record?

But when it comes to sobering moments like the deadly encounter in a Missouri town — with the world watching — seeing for ourselves could be one step toward the truth.

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