As disturbing as the cellphone video of George Floyd being slowly suffocated by police officers in Minneapolis last month is — and it is horrifying — perhaps worse is the knowledge that if not for a bystander with a cellphone camera shooting that footage, the four police officers involved would likely not have been charged with his murder. They might not have been fired, or even disciplined.
Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, dozens of videos have gained national play that call into question the behavior of police officers. More often than not, those videos have come from bystanders, not the police themselves. As the national, and local, discussion on racial justice triggered by Floyd’s murder has made clear, relying on those instances where someone else is not only witness to a violent encounter between police and civilians, but can also later provide video evidence to back up their stories, is no longer near good enough.
A petition passed around at a demonstration Saturday in Keene garnered more than 200 signatures calling for the city’s police to don body cameras. It’s a proposal that has been raised before, but not acted upon. There are very good reasons to use body cameras, and the main arguments against them, save for cost, have been disappearing. We have reached the point where cost, too, should no longer be an impediment.
A study of the use of body cameras in Rialto, Calif., over several years found the use of force by officers dropped by 60 percent and complaints against officers fell by a whopping 88 percent. A more widespread study by the Rand Corp. and the University of Cambridge looked at seven police departments of varying sizes worldwide over the course of a year, finding the incidence of complaints against officers fell by 93 percent. And in cities that have made camera use a regular part of policing, legal costs have dropped significantly, with fewer lawsuits alleging officer misbehavior.
Police in Barrington and Dover are considering them. Officers in Lee, Milton, Northwood and Strafford already use them, as does the campus force at the University of New Hampshire. Hinsdale began using the cameras years ago.
In 2015, the Keene City Council pondered the issue of adding body cameras to the city’s police uniforms. Then-Chief Brian Costa noted while wearing cameras, officers feel they’re protected against false accusations that could lead to lawsuits. Additionally, he said, some members of the public feel the police are more accountable if their behavior is on video. Still, he recommended against the move, largely on the idea that relations between the police and community members in Keene aren’t that contentious, so the need just wasn’t there.
Costa’s successor, Chief Steven Russo, has also opposed the use of body cameras in the past. His main concerns were how to deal with privacy, video storage and right-to-know issues. But a 2017 state law set forth standards for training and use of such equipment, policies for ensuring privacy, and storage and eventual destruction of recordings. The law lays out what types of calls a camera would be used on, and which recordings would be subject to the state’s right-to-know law. So there shouldn’t be any impediment on those bases.
Reducing complaints and legal costs is a good rationale for using body cameras, though hardly the sole one. Camera footage can be a valuable piece of evidence in solving crimes, since it’s more reliable than witnesses’ memories. Descriptions of suspects, vehicle or license plates are preserved unerringly, as are events.
The main reason, however, which can no longer be denied, is that justice demands it. The police, here and elsewhere, have long been viewed as the good guys, the servers and protectors. But it has become increasingly clear since the death of Michael Brown brought the issue into the national spotlight, that even if this is still largely the case — and we believe it is here — taking police officers at their word in cases of life and death isn’t enough anymore. We no longer live in a world where the police (or any authority figures, really) can simply say, “Trust us.”
Keene may still be a community where that trust and individual relationships with police officers are strong. But it only takes one encounter, one officer or one allegation to ruin that. Indeed, using body cameras may serve to reinforce that trust.
City Councilor Terry Clark has proposed Keene look at how its police department and others are structured. He’d like to “demilitarize” the local force and support it with social service elements from human services. The council will no doubt discuss his thoughts. They ought to open that discussion to more, including the notion that when it comes to police interactions, seeing is believing.