Why body cameras are not THE answer to trustworthy policing

(MEDIA GENERAL) – Ferguson, North Charleston, Cleveland and New York City all saw protests, some peaceful, some violent, after deadly confrontations with police. In the case of North Charleston, city leaders immediately promised body cameras to increase transparency between the police department and the community. The announcement was met with quick applause.

North Charleston is not alone. Other local and state governments are rushing to find funding for body cameras. President Obama has pledged $263 million for body cameras and training for up to 50,000 officers. The two companies that provide the majority of body cameras to police departments, according to CNNMoney, are Digital Ally and Taser. Digital Alley has seen its stock jump 191% in the past year. Taser has gone up 54%. Even a smaller provider of body cameras for police, Pro-Vision, told us web traffic to its body cameras site has almost doubled since last August.

Body Cameras Are Not the Only Answer

We spoke to the President of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), the Executive Director for the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), and the marketing manager for Pro-Vision Video Systems, and while they disagree on strategies to improve police department’s relationships with the communities they serve, they do agree on one thing: body cameras are not the only answer.

“Sustainable and meaningful reform in law enforcement has to come from involvement from multiple groups and employ a number of different strategies,” said Brian Buchner, President of NACOLE. “It can’t just be ‘we’re employing body cameras and suddenly we’re a transparent police department.’”

Bill Johnson, Executive Director of NAPO, agreed body cameras are not a cure all.

“We think it’s important for the public to be educated, as well. What cameras can do and their limitations,” Johnson said. “They are not a panacea and can’t answer every question.”

Johnson said cameras can be useful tools, but NAPO encourages departments to involve rank and file officers in the decision to deploy them, and create policies around how and when they should be used.

Sam Lehnert, marketing manager with Pro-Vision Video Systems, echoed those comments, agreeing that body cameras are just one piece of the puzzle.

“I don’t think there’s any silver bullet. There needs to be policies and procedures that are thought through. Cameras are just one tool,” he said.

How Big Is the Problem?

After North Charleston Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder for killing Walter Scott, NACOLE President Buchner wrote, “As we witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri, a single officer-involved shooting has the potential to shake the public’s confidence in the police, not only in the community where the incident occurred, but also throughout communities across the country.”

When we spoke with Buchner, who has worked with NACOLE since 2004 and works as a Special Investigator with the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, Office of the Inspector General, he said the environment surrounding police officers is different now than he’s seen in the past. Distrust of law enforcement’s ability to police itself is more widespread and there are increased calls for scrutiny of law enforcement, he said.

“The broken or breaking relationships between police and the communities they serve is not isolated and gaining recognition from a broader group of stakeholders, including the police themselves,” Buchner explained.

NAPO’s Johnson disagrees.

“Controversial cases and disputes and ugly cases caught on film and allegations about the police do come up from time to time, and sometimes they are valid criticisms and sometimes they are not,” said Johnson.

He said if you look back to the 1960’s, ’70’s and ’80’s, it’s unfair to say the problems we’re seeing now are worse than they’ve ever been.

What Should Be Done?

Not surprisingly, NACOLE, which advocates for formal civilian oversight of law enforcement, and NAPO, which supports a coalition of police units and associations around the country, disagree on what should be done to improve relationships between police departments and communities.

NACOLE’s Buchner said there are 200 models of civilian oversight around the country and they have various levels of responsibilities. Some can receive community complaints about law enforcement. Some help with hiring or policy recommendations, while others audit internal police investigations and even issue some public reports.

“Police departments have been historically resistant to civilian oversight, but we’re seeing more support internally for civilian oversight to improve relationships and support policing by looking at systemic issues with law enforcement to remedy those issues,” Buchner said.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/interim_tf_report.pdf issued recommendations in March that included having police officers collaborate with the community to come up with policies and procedures for the department.

“It’s unfortunate and it’s tragic that there continue to be incidents where police departments and communities they serve are tested and severely strained, if not broken,” Bucher said. “But, there’s real momentum to implementing meaningful strategies for greater accountability of police departments.”

Buchner also stresses police departments should not wait for a crisis to improve its relationship with its community.

“Trust is an important currency for a police department to guard,” he said. “If departments build trust now, they’ll be in a better position to maintain it if a crisis happens.”

NAPO’s Johnson looks at things from a different perspective. He says there already is a “whole bunch” of civilian oversight both formal and informal. He lists internal affairs bureaus, city officials, internal command, state and federal agencies and the media as some examples.

“There already exist many layers of civilian oversight for departments around the country. What these people are really saying is they don’t like the result and they want to be in charge,” Johnson said.

“I do think there’s a lot of work to be done and bridges have to be built from both sides,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say the police have to change and it’s all on police to do that.”

Johnson says community members have to change, as well. He sees instances where all police officers are being painted with the same brush, and feels those kinds of generalizations would not be tolerated for other groups of people.

Johnson has some other ideas to improve police relations. He suggests Citizen Police Academies and Police Explorer Programs that allow civilians to learn about the stressors officers face on the job. He also suggests departments deploy officers to work within the community to build relationships by doing volunteer work, for example. This last recommendation also is supported by the president’s task force report.

In the end, both men agree more work needs to be done to build the right bridge.

“The attention being paid to it is the sign of its importance across the country. It’s not going to be a moment that will be missed at the national or local level,” Buchner concluded.

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