The push to equip police officers and sheriff's deputies with body-worn cameras that would record interactions with the public, including suspected criminals, is a push in the right direction. The Mountain View Police Department decided some time ago to purchase the small cameras for its officers, and at last is finalizing its policies on their use. And county Supervisor Joe Simitian won the support of his colleagues this week for his proposal to authorize a county report on the possibility of having on-duty deputies wear cameras.
Although important details about the use of the cameras must be worked out to protect privacy and avoid unintended consequences, these cameras can go a long way toward preserving -- and in some cases, repairing -- public trust in law enforcement agencies. That trust can be undermined in various ways locally, but when national incidents such as the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings by police officers explode into the public consciousness, the need for a reliable accounting of encounters between officers and the public is underscored.
The cameras' benefits, however, go beyond capturing the details of deadly encounters. With the recording of all interactions between police officers and the public, a reliable vehicle exists in most situations to protect both officers who are wrongly accused of misconduct, and people who have been victims of abuse at the hands of an officer. Simitian cites a study conducted by Rialto, a city of about 100,000 in San Bernadino County, that shows the use of body cameras by police reduced use-of-force incidents by about 50 percent and citizen complaints against officers by about 90 percent.
In Mountain View, the police department intends to spend $135,000 on cameras and associated costs, and camera use is expected to begin within months. The department's Capt. Chris Hsiung said that officers won't be required to have the cameras on continually during their 12-hour shifts, but they "should be on anytime we know there's going to be an encounter between officers and people."
In finalizing its policies on camera use, the department would do well to review the recent incident in Menlo Park in which three police officers were involved in the fatal shooting of a burglary suspect. The department had purchased body cameras for all officers, and the camera program had been initiated months before the shooting. But for reasons that have yet to be fully explained, none of the officers had activated a camera, and therefore there's no visual record of the shooting.
Although the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office is still investigating the incident, some details have emerged that can be instructional for agencies drafting policies for body camera use. One of the Menlo Park officers wasn't wearing a camera because he had turned it in for repair and the department hadn't bought spare equipment. And, according to that department's chief, the cameras' batteries have only a three-hour charge, so officers on 12-hour shifts may tend to be conservative about when they activate their cameras. Of the two officers involved in the shooting who were wearing cameras, one turned his on only after the shooting, and the other officer reportedly never activated his.
What can be learned from this unfortunate incident, which had the potential of shaking the public's trust in the city's police force, is that back-up cameras must be available to officers to allow for inevitable malfunctions, batteries must be easily replaceable when running low, and law enforcement agencies must craft clear and firm policies about when officers are required to activate their cameras, and outline consequences for not doing so.