The Daily Record: Body cameras for police will build trust

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on July 17, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Last weekend’s news conference featuring Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis standing side by side to state unequivocally that they are unified in the fight to end Baltimore’s horrific spree of homicides and gun violence was a welcome step in the right direction.

This public display of unity – perhaps too long in coming — sent a signal that city leaders have recognized the need to demonstrate a clear sense of urgency to end the violence and are now working toward a strategy all can agree on to attain that goal as quickly as possible.

Hopefully that strategy will include expediting the proper deployment of body cameras to police officers working the streets.

The mayor is on record that body cameras are a priority for her administration. As the city’s chief executive she is right to want to ensure that the technology is rolled out correctly, does not improperly violent privacy rights and does not waste taxpayer dollars. The city is currently in the process of soliciting bids from contractors who will supply the equipment and manage storage of data captured by the cameras.

Sooner, not later

But there have been concerns from city council members that the process for purchasing the technology and getting a police body camera program in place is taking too long.

There’s some merit to those concerns, given events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the ensuing civil unrest this spring and the fact that the city’s request for bids (RFP) for body cameras states that the program would be rolled out over a four-year period.

The city’s RFP outlines a pilot program, too, but it’s unclear when, where or how soon this pilot program would get implemented. Sooner rather than latter should be the order of the day, and a tactic worth pursuing is to focus that police body camera pilot program in one or two targeted precincts.

This would signal to cynics that the mayor and city police leadership are serious about the proper use of body cameras and are not using bureaucracy to slow adoption of a promising crime-fighting technology.

It would also give police the opportunity to begin gathering information and data and test the technology’s proper deployment, its effectiveness in capturing useful information for crime fighting, and how footage and audio shores up legal rights for those arrested or charged and convictions for prosecutors.

Adding transparency

Police body cameras certainly aren’t the sole answer to Baltimore’s current crime wave. But such recording technologies have had transformational impact in other jurisdictions. Before their emergence, filmed evidence of police and their encounters with suspects or criminals was rare.

The technology holds the promise of adding to police work an element of transparency that is perhaps overdue when you consider the skeptical attitude that law enforcement confronts when it comes to public perceptions in some quarters of the city these days.

Although personal privacy concerns are often raised when body camera technology is debated, it is interesting to note that the American Civil Liberties Union, a strong proponent of civil liberties, says in a March 2015 report that body camera technology, when properly deployed and backed by the right policies, can be a “win for all.”

“Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping to protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping police against false accusations of abuse,” the ACLU report states.

To be fair, Baltimore isn’t the only U.S. city wrestling with how best to adopt body camera technology in police work. The ACLU report notes that recent surveys find only about 25 percent of the 17,000 police agencies in the U.S. are using body cameras, while essentially all the rest are evaluating the technology.

The right policies

One issue Baltimore will need to address, if and when it fully deploys the technology to police on the street, is ensuring that polices are in place to prevent police from being able to decide when to activate a body camera and under what circumstances deployment should not be used. Having a sound policy in place to prevent police on the street from making such decisions will be a key to ensuring the public and our communities trust police in the handling of the technology.

And so the technology’s promise of serving as a check against abuse by an important, powerful arm of the government, while assisting law enforcement and the courts with the proper execution of justice, is compelling indeed.

For that reason alone the mayor and police leadership should find a way to get body cameras deployed sooner rather than later — at least in a pilot program in a few precincts.

There are still a lot of steps that need to be taken to rebuild the broken trust in police that hangs heavy in some city communities.

But getting body cameras deployed as quickly as possible in Baltimore City appears to have a significant upside for all.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the Hire One Youth initiative. He is a regular contributor to The Daily Record.  

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