Columns, Opinion

RYAN: Caught on Tape

It’s been a long four months, Boston University. During our time apart, a lot has happened in the political realm. Gaza, Iraq and Russia have all dominated international headlines. However, a more recent story has captured national attention, and it’s much closer to home.

On Aug. 9, Michael Brown was allegedly shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. When Brown was found unarmed, news of his death began to travel via Twitter and other social media platforms. The story inspired protests and riots both in Ferguson and around the country. This avoidable tragedy has led many to question how we exercise justice in this country.

The system is far from perfect, but there are clear ways to improve it. Every police force in the nation should require its officers to wear body cameras while on patrol. By monitoring officers’ on duty interactions, police chiefs can help keep their officers and citizens safe.

A 2013 study published by the Police Foundation demonstrated how these body cameras could work effectively. From January 2012 to February 2013, half of the officers in Rialto, California wore body cameras while on duty. After more than 43,000 recorded police-civilian instances, the results were fairly clear. There were only 25 instances where police officers used force during the experiment, compared to 60 in 2011. The study also found an 89 percent drop in complaints against officers during the same time period.

Regardless of the demonstrated effectiveness, cost is still a major factor. According to an Aug. 27 story by ABC 7, Denver’s police chief Robert White wants to purchase 800 body cameras for his police force for a hefty $1.5 million. Denver is a small metropolitan area. Larger cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago can expect much bigger bills for these cameras. Chicago can scarcely afford to keep all of its public schools open, so I can’t see Mayor Rahm Emanuel signing up for more expenses.

One solution is for state or federal agencies to allocate grant money for this purpose. A few targeted body camera programs would help promote the idea and work out any unforeseen issues. If we completely ignore the costs (that’s what government officials do all the time, right?), there are far too many benefits to ignore.

Body cameras would keep citizens safe, but I’m not saying excessive force will disappear for good. There will still be claims of police misconduct. However, these cameras would give everyone involved a little something extra to think about. If officers know they’re being recorded, they’ll have an incentive to follow all the protocols and laws.

Even if something goes wrong, there will be proof of the misconduct. Citizens will have documented evidence to support any complaints. It would no longer be their word alone against that of a law enforcement officer.

These cameras could also protect police officers physically and legally. The previously cited Police Foundation study noted that all civilians were aware they were being recorded, but researchers did not measure how this changed their behavior. However, we could probably guess that most would be less likely to instigate confrontations or threaten the officers. There would be fewer false complaints and a better review process for any issues.

Additionally, citizens would no longer be burdened with recording police activity. On Aug. 14, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post published his experience being arrested in a Ferguson, Missouri McDonald’s. At one point, Lowery began recording a police officer, who promptly told him to stop. Lowery stood his ground and continued to record.

However, most citizens aren’t like Lowery. In the face of authority, it can become difficult to stand up for one’s legal rights. There’s a difference between standing up to a theoretical authority and facing a very real officer with a very real semiautomatic weapon. These body cameras would take some pressure off civilians. They would still have the right to record an officer’s actions, but now, there is another camera at the scene.

These protections will go a long way to prevent tragedies like Michael Brown’s death. They are the first step toward truly changing the relationship between officers and citizens. We should feel safe around law enforcement officers, not afraid of abuse.

We owe it to Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson to take this idea seriously. We owe it to every civilian who has ever been abused by a police officer and to every officer who has ever been falsely accused. Our society has the opportunity to improve itself. If we don’t act, we’re consenting to more of the same. We cannot quietly acquiesce while people are dying. Every person has the right to demand change, so why aren’t you?

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