Should police wear body cameras?

If you turned on your TV, opened a newspaper, or checked twitter at all this week, I almost guarantee you saw the same thing. Thousands of protestors, lines of riot police, and burning pharmacies filled our headlines, screens, and the streets of Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death. Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez has publicly stated that there was no visible “physical bodily injury” on Gray and “none of his limbs were broken.” However, details of Freddy Grey’s death are hazy at best. Amateur footage taken at the scene of the arrest shows Gray being loaded into the back of a police van supported by two police officers and struggling to walk. By the time he reached the police station, Gray could not move and was having difficulty talking. He died a week later on April 19, begging the question: what, or who killed Freddy Gray?

Confidence in the police seems to have plummeted in our country. In recent polls taken by The Atlantic in August of 2014 showed that 41 percent of Americans distrust the police’s investigations of dead African Americans. Since August, several other cases of police brutality have occurred, likely causing even more Americans to distrust the boys in blue.

Many critics of the police’s actions argue that something needs to be done in order to hold police accountable for their actions while enforcing the law. This, among other things, makes the idea of body-mounted cameras for police officers appeals to many. After all, in many of these cases of questionable police force, the details of eyewitness testimony vary drastically. For example when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown last year in Ferguson Missouri, some witnesses were sure they saw Michael Brown go for Wilson’s gun and the officer shoot the man in self defense. Others saw Wilson as the aggressor, who shot Brown after he attempted to surrender. Many argue that if Wilson had had a body camera on his chest, this lack of clarity wouldn’t exist. We would have the facts in raw, unbiased footage, and the criminal would be exposed. The federal government likes the idea of a transparent police force. Obama mandated that 263 million dollars be used to provide some 50,000 body cameras for police across the nation.

Despite all this, it is unclear whether or not mandating the use of body cameras would help to bring change to practices of the police. Eric Garner was choked to death on camera, repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” and yet, the officer who had him in a chokehold wasn’t even indicted. The only thing the video was able to do effectively was incite rage and horror in Americans. It also costs millions of dollars to equip policemen with this technology, and even if the police were able to record every case and assailant, there is an issue of what is appropriate to release to the public. Should the police department omit victims of domestic violence? What about juveniles caught by policemen? Where do we draw the line? Spokane police Chief Frank Straub recently instituted police cameras for his force, and spoke of his anxieties about this new technology.

“We see people at their best, and we see people at their worst,” said Straub. “I wonder sometimes why it’s necessary to record some of those interactions. People that are grieving. People that are traumatized. People that are under the influence. Really? At the end of the day, why is that something that’s good for public consumption? So that we can laugh at somebody?”

Straub brings up excellent points. In an environment swarming with Internet trolls and blackmailers, do we really want records of everyone’s worst day displayed to the general public? Many of these videos could be shameful, traumatizing, or disturbing. What if your next employer finds a video of you being arrested for public urination? What if your mother does? Is the footage we find worth the dubious benefit of these cameras?

This much is true: the police forces of our nation need to restore our trust in them. We need to be able to assume that the right thing will be done by the men and women we trust to protect us, from doctors to policemen. At the moment, our faith in policemen to do the right thing is very low, and as long as it remains at this level, American citizens will always have trouble believing the police. Maybe Freddy Gray was brutalized by the police in the back of that car. Maybe he inflicted the paralysis himself. Maybe Superman flew past faster than a speeding bullet and broke his spine as he passed the police van, and we should be persecuting him instead.

The point is we do not know what happened, and we have no way of knowing. Whatever it was that actually happened in the back of that van, a large portion of Americans will assume that it was police brutality, no matter what is said. It has gotten to the point where many of us assume it was the police’s fault unless explicit evidence shows that it was not the case. Otherwise we will just assume it was an exchange just like every other video we have seen of police interaction with black “assailants.” We will assume the man was choked to death while pleading like Eric Garner, or shot when running from the police like Walter Scott. Whether or not a camera on every police officer is the right decision is up to debate. However, it is indisputable that until police officers find a way to restore the public’s trust in their judgment, police officers will be seen as just as dangerous as the criminals they pursue.

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