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Preventing police abuses of power: Are body cameras the answer?

The news over the last two weeks has focused heavily on the fatal police shooting and resulting protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Depending on your age and where you live in the United States, this story can either feel foreign or frighteningly close to home.

It is no secret that there are racial tensions in Milwaukee, particularly between many in the African-American community and local law enforcement agencies. Is it possible that a young, black suspect could be fatally shot by white police officers in Wisconsin under similarly suspicious circumstances? The answer, sadly, seems to be yes.

Police brutality, excessive force and racial profiling are all significant problems. But just how often police actually abuse their power is a matter of some debate. Most disputes between police and citizens boil down to the suspect’s word against the officer’s. There has to be a better way to ensure fairness.

The answer could be body-mounted video cameras. Camera technology is getting more sophisticated, smaller and cheaper all the time. More importantly, cameras offer an unbiased, objective account of interactions between citizens and police.

Law enforcement agencies in some parts of the country have already been testing body-mounted cameras. In Rialto, California, for instance, cameras have been worn by officers for more than a year. In that time, police officers’ use of force declined 60 percent. Similarly, complaints about police by citizens have declined by 88 percent.

Obviously, there are some privacy concerns, and this is a criminal defense issue that could take significant time and discussion to sort out before the practice could ever become widespread. But if body-mounted cameras could improve police accountability and prevent tragedies like the one in Missouri, the discussion about implementing their use is one that must be had.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "What Happens When Police Officers Wear Body Cameras," Christopher Mims, Aug. 18, 2014

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