Police officers have one of the toughest jobs imaginable.
They respond to reports of criminal activity to ensure the public’s safety. The officers don’t want any situation to get out of hand, so they must assume control. This is entirely appropriate.
The intermingling of smartphone technology and social media, however, often creates obstacles for the officers in carrying out their duties. Watching police confrontations has become a form of mass entertainment. So when officers need to exert some force to prevent violence, many passers-by can’t resist the temptation to record the incident for a potential audience of gawkers.
Sometimes these videos prove very useful in adding context to police narratives of what occurred. When what’s claimed by officials doesn’t jibe with the images captured by cellphone cameras, law enforcement authorities can more easily be held accountable for attempting to deceive constituents.
Civilian videos, though, don’t always record all the essential details of arrests. Some people don’t start recording an exchange between officers and suspects until aggression is initiated by either party.
This can omit vital factors that led to the encounter. Officers can become vulnerable to questionable allegations of abuse under such circumstances.
As a result, many communities across the country have mandated their police officers to use body cameras. They can record important moments of incidents before handheld devices get turned on.
This system can verify what government officials are saying and refute assertions that officers acted improperly. It also can confirm reports of misconduct, a good incentive for law enforcement agents to follow the rules.
A recording made July 14 of Watertown police officers detaining several people outside a bar highlights the need for body cameras.
“A video of an arrest outside Whistlers Tavern recorded early Sunday morning has been widely viewed online and led to criticism of the city Police Department as viewers have called for answers to how officers reacted during the arrest. The video begins after police appear to have tackled a man within a crowd gathered outside the bar shortly before 2 a.m.,” according to a story published July 16 by the Watertown Daily Times. “City police Detective Lt. Joseph R. Donoghue Sr. said officers were investigating reports of someone striking a woman with a beer bottle and a scuffle in the tavern. Police witnessed a large crowd outside surrounding the woman, who was bleeding profusely from the forehead. They tried to disperse the crowd to address the victim, which resulted in the three arrests, Lt. Donoghue said. … Watertown police do not have body cameras, so it is not clear what happened before the man was tackled.”
The officers appeared to have difficulty persuading people watching the incident to disperse. The video made shows what occurs after the first suspect is detained; other arrests followed.
Body cameras worn by the officers would document what transpired beforehand. This would answer some questions people have raised about their conduct.
To be sure, purchasing body cameras would be a costly investment for the city. There are many budget items that are a higher priority, so this isn’t a policy that’s going to be implemented next week.
It is, however, worthy of serious discussion on the part of city officials. There could well be grants available to help with funding the devices.
Officers need to be able to do their jobs without the fear of unfounded accusations made against them. Just the same, they must be held accountable for their actions. Body cameras would address both of these concerns.