Cameras protect police, public

However one views what happened Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., it is easy to agree with the call by Michael Brown’s parents for the use of body cameras by police as a positive outcome of the tragic death of their son.

An array of legislative proposals to reform law enforcement have developed in the aftermath of police killings of African-Americans such as Brown, Eric Garner, Tamar Rice, John Crawford and Atlanta’s Kathryn Johnston.

These proposals include limiting no-knock warrants; repealing the state’s stand-your-ground law; the demilitarization of police; and grand jury reform, among others. All of these issues will be debated during the upcoming legislative session, and that debate will likely be contentious.

A proposal for which there may be an emerging consensus is the adoption of police body cameras. A recent poll indicated 91 percent of the public agree police should wear body cameras as they patrol our streets. Increasingly, the public believes the use of body cameras will result in fewer instances of excessive use of force by law enforcement.

Research shows this is true. In a study of body cameras in Rialto, Calif., the use of force by that city’s police department dropped by 59 percent. But body cameras also affect the actions of citizens who come into contact with the police. In the Rialto study, there was an 88 percent decline in citizen complaints made against officers. False complaints are less likely when body cameras are used. Body cameras will protect both the public and the police.

I believe that, in the best of all worlds, Georgia ought to require all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras. At the same time, the cost and maintenance of the equipment is a valid concern that must be considered.

President Barack Obama’s law enforcement reform initiative includes $75 million to cover half the cost of body cameras for 50,000 officers. That program would provide equipment to only about 8 percent of the United States’ 630,000 law enforcement officers if Congress funds the initiative. Therefore, if the more-than 25,000 officers in Georgia are to be equipped, it will be the responsibility of state and local governments.

It has been gratifying that some Georgia law enforcement agencies have moved toward adopting body cameras.

The Atlanta Police Department began studying the use of cameras earlier this year. After the killing of Brown in Ferguson, Atlanta community groups such as the Gen Y Project and the United Youth Adult Conference implored the city to move quickly in adopting body cameras. Recently, the City Council approved issuing a request for proposal for 1,200 units. The Savannah Police Department is considering using body cameras after the September shooting death of a suspect. Other departments throughout the state are considering body cameras.

Ultimately, state and local governments should see these expenditures as well spent, in that they could save a city or county millions of dollars from huge civil settlements. Atlanta settled a civil suit for $4.9 million in the 2006 Kathryn Johnston killing. Habersham County settled for $2 million with the family of pastor Jonathan Ayers, who was wrongfully killed by a county drug task force in 2009.

Adopting body cameras by police is a complex process. Data storage, privacy concerns, training and protocols must be considered. And it is critical to keep in mind, as the discussion of body cameras evolves, that they are only one part of re-creating the relationship between police and the community.

True “community policing” has to be implemented so that African-American neighborhoods and other communities of color will see law enforcement not as an occupying force, but as partners in making neighborhoods safe. One of the casualties of recent police shootings is public trust. It is time for that trust to be restored.