The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily-News Miner
Earlier this week, Fairbanks City Mayor John Eberhart and Police Chief Randall Aragon gave an update on their pilot body camera program for police officers. They also announced a notable policy point: It is the city’s intention to outfit all of its patrol officers with the cameras. Whether your attitude toward police is enthusiastic or skeptical, this is good news. Universal use of body cameras by city officers should do much to build a more objective record of citizen encounters with law enforcement, and has been shown to make those encounters more respectful on both sides of the badge.
Body cameras for law enforcement officers have become a hot topic as public attention to instances of violence by officers grows nationwide. In a national address, President Barack Obama advocated for their use to help avoid situations such as the death of teenager Michael Brown at the hands of an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.
The president advocated for $263 million in funds for body cameras and training for officers; this year, the Department of Justice will spend $20 million on the cameras as part of a $75 million, three-year pilot program approved by Congress.
Locally, the Fairbanks Police Department’s foray into body cameras has been fairly modest to date. Earlier this year, the department purchased four body cameras for patrol officers, then an additional six later in the year. This week, Chief Aragon and Mayor Eberhart announced their plans to outfit all of the department’s patrol officers with the devices.
Concerns have been raised about police-worn cameras, and many of them come from reasonable impulses. Some are worried about a creeping surveillance state, while others have asked questions about whether police could edit or delete footage of questionable encounters without public knowledge. Strong policies on recording and editing of captured video footage could help assuage these concerns.
All in all, body cameras should be a win-win for both officers and the public. The presence of a camera creates a far more objective record than is often the case with personal recollections. And unlike memories, video doesn’t change over time — a video recorded digitally today wouldn’t change a whit between the incident in question and an eventual court trial, giving judges and jurors the ability to have a clear look at the events of the case without the coloring of bias or shifting memory.
It’s true that a camera can’t see everything all the time — body-worn cameras are a bit like GoPro action cameras, recording what lies in front of an officer. But even that is far better than nothing. Data show the cameras, plainly visible, have a remarkable effect of increasing respectful encounters between citizens and police and diminishing the likelihood of police use of force. A 2012 study in California showed use of force incidents in police encounters diminished by 60 percent after body cameras were taken up by one department, and the overall level of citizen complaints against officers dropped a whopping 88 percent. In an Arizona police department, overall complaints against officers dropped by 40 percent and use-of-force complaints dropped by 75 percent.
For officers, body-worn cameras provide objective evidence of events and a tool — similar to police vehicle dash cameras — that can be used to help shore up the state’s case in court. Additionally, it protects officers against spurious complaints. For citizens, the camera’s guarantee of an objective record can reassure that officers won’t likely use more force than is warranted or act disrespectfully toward those with whom they interact.
For both citizens and police, the cameras can be a win. Chief Aragon and Mayor Eberhart are doing the right thing by realizing that and expanding the cameras’ use.