WHISNANT: The camera’s rolling

Mandatory body cameras would benefit both the police force and the citizens of Charlottesville

The public response to national disasters like Ferguson seems to follow a three step process: shock at the tragedy, brief debate about how to move forward and then quiet indifference as nothing changes. Resignation like this shouldn’t be confused with apathy. It is instead the natural result of positive change being beaten back for what feels like forever. Even if a national response to Michael Brown’s shooting seems out of reach, there are steps Charlottesville can take to form a more perfect union between law enforcement personnel and the citizens they are charged with protecting and serving. The first and most important action the City can take to ensure what happened in Ferguson never happens here is to equip police officers with body cameras to monitor their work.

The rationale behind the cameras is simple: both Charlottesville police and community members are better protected from violence, intimidation and harassment because video recording ensures a verifiable record of all interactions. In theory, no one is a loser from such an arrangement; neighborhoods that have a heavy police presence will be safer on multiple counts and police officers will be able to more effectively solve crimes. If an officer was to interrupt a liquor store robbery, for instance, the chase and arrest of the perpetrators would be archived in real time to get better visuals on the physical makeup, attire, weapons and potential vehicles used in the crime. While interviewing area residents for information, witnesses would be more comfortable speaking freely knowing that they wouldn’t be misrepresented or coerced in telling their stories. On a more mundane level, people are more likely to be cordial in dealing with police if they know they are being filmed. Most crucially for the well being of police officers, it also provides an added layer of protection against assault or attack since the entire affair would be captured on video. High profile controversies in recent history like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s and Assata Shakur’s convictions of shooting police officers, not to mention the cases of 29 officers killed by gunfire so far this year, could be more satisfyingly resolved.

The greatest beneficiaries from a body camera policy would still undeniably be the residents of the Charlottesville community. While there have been a few notable accusations of police brutality in recent years, such as with Occupy Charlottesville’s eviction from Lee Park in 2012 or a Fluvanna man being allegedly shoved into the pavement, there are likely countless other stories that go unreported because victims feel powerless to overcome the formidable law enforcement bureaucracy. As Aryn Frazier, Political Action Chair of the Black Student Alliance, notes, “Police brutality and stereotyping African-Americans takes place all across the country – including in Charlottesville.” The Ferguson police department has already begun implementing the use of cameras for its officers, and there is no reason Charlottesville shouldn’t follow suit.

There is also encouraging data to show that body cameras can make real improvements in the quality of life of Charlottesville residents. In Rialto, California, complaints against police officers in 2012 fell 88 percent compared to the previous year and officer use of force declined 60 percent over the same period. So far, community members and officers themselves have claimed to be mostly satisfied with the results, and civil liberties groups like the ACLU of Southern California see the privacy and surveillance concerns as heavily outweighed by the increased accountability for the police force. As such, the residents of Virginia should hope to see the same benefits if the policy were enacted here.

Most of the proposals in response to the horrific excesses of Ferguson have focused on the demilitarization of the police and the need to eliminate transfers of weapons of war to untrained young recruits. While these steps are necessary preconditions to tackling the cycle of violence in our neighborhoods, they will be insufficient as long as the social role of the police as adversarial occupiers capable of antagonizing the community is left unchecked and unexamined. This isn’t to say there aren’t lots of well-intentioned or civic-minded officers here, but the small inconvenience of wearing a camera would be trivial compared to the benefits all residents of would receive: a stronger police force and by extension a stronger social fabric for Charlottesville.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.whisnant@cavalierdaily.com.

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