With a Charter Initiative for Police Body Cameras.
Last year, in the space of just a few minutes, Ferguson was transformed from an obscure suburb of St. Louis, to the center of a national focus on police violence toward black Americans. It is an undisputed fact that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson encountered Michael Brown as he walked down Canfield Drive. But depending on whom you believe, Brown was unjustly murdered by a rogue cop, or he was killed as he attempted to wrest away the officer’s gun in a violent attack.
Because there was no video of the encounter, we are strongly divided on what happened that day, and what should have been done as a result. Some believe that Brown was a violent criminal, and that Wilson is the victim of unjustified persecution for doing his job. Others believe Brown was killed in cold blood, and that the police and prosecutor conspired to ensure that Wilson was not held accountable for it. But we can all agree on one thing: If body camera video of the encounter between Brown and Wilson had been available, the situation could have been handled promptly and justly.
When we announced the Ferguson charter initiative to require and regulate police body cameras, the city responded that they “already require body cameras.” That’s not good enough. Here’s why:
- Police and citizens deserve the protection of a consistent camera policy. Police camera video protects citizens against police misconduct. It also protects police against false accusations and harassment from citizens. It is in everyone’s best interest to establish a consistent police to use cameras, and to make video readily available. Our charter initiative ensures this will happen.
- Administrative rules can be changed. While the police chief may require body cameras today, that requirement can be lifted tomorrow. Budgetary constraints, union negotiations, or changing personal preferences of police command, could eliminate body cameras, and citizens would have no voice in that decision. Our charter initiative ensures that city policy can’t be changed without the approval of voters.
- The city doesn’t require the cameras be turned on. While we often see Ferguson officers wearing body cameras, they are often not turned on. One citizen was told that the cameras are turned on when an officer feels threatened. But preserving officer safety is only one of the reasons for body cameras. If they are not recording throughout an officer’s shift, important video could be missed. In fact, when an Ferguson officer was shot last fall, his camera was not on. (Story at http://goo.gl/ZNFLq7) A camera that isn’t turned on is nothing but a piece of jewelry. Our charter initiative ensures that cameras are turned on whenever a uniformed officer is on duty.
- The city doesn’t have a policy for public access. Across the country, varying public policies have resulted in costly court battles to obtain access to video. In some jurisdictions, citizens have been denied access. In others, videos are blurred beyond recognition and muted, making them useless. Our policy ensures that the public will have prompt, free access to video taken in public places, while protecting the privacy of video taken when an officer is in a private location.
- The city doesn’t have a policy for compliance. We know that officers have been told to wear the cameras. We’ve seen officers, in public places, without them. Our charter initiative requires that the city manager report monthly on compliance, and that reports be made available on the city website.
- The city faces no legal consequences for failing to comply. When the city prosecutes a citizen or is sued, body camera video would often be useful. Our charter amendment holds the city accountable for failing to use the cameras, with legal consequences when they do not.
Opponents of a camera requirement cite the cost of purchasing cameras and archiving video. Of course, there will be a cost. But the cost of not having them is much higher. Responding to the protests which followed the killing of Michael Brown cost St. Louis county nearly $6 million. Millions of dollars of businesses were destroyed, and those which were spared lost much of their business. This could have been avoided if video of the encounter was obtained, and made promptly available.
Similar situations have occurred elsewhere. In Baltimore, prosecutors are having great difficulty determining how Freddy Grey died in police custody. In Charleston, an officer was held accountable for shooting Walter Scott in the back because a bystander had filmed the encounter on his cell phone. At a time when technological advances have made video inexpensive and compact, this is inexcusable.
Our Ferguson charter amendment will ensure that such a situation never happens again in Ferguson.