Police in Ferguson, Mo. have begun wearing body cameras after one of their own shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
It’s a great idea, particularly in Ferguson, where the killing brought the discussion of police use of force to the national fore.
When used properly, these cameras can halve the incidents of use of police force, the national Police Foundation reported after a yearlong study.
But that’s only when they are being used properly.
Greensboro police have been using body cameras since last summer, when they enrolled in TASER’s evidence.com program, which allows the department to manage and easily share videos captured by police body cameras.
But when Officer TJ Bloch shot and killed 47-year-old Chieu-di Thi Vo, a Vietnamese immigrant diagnosed with bipolar disorder who did not speak English, in March, Chief Ken Miller refused to release video captured by Bloch’s body camera, choosing to classify all footage from these cameras as part of an officer’s personnel file.
Personnel files are protected under public records law.
It’s a dance with which every seasoned journalist is familiar: Government and its agencies, from Washington DC to Greensboro’s Melvin Municipal Office Building, spend a great deal of time figuring out how to classify damaging records as personnel issues — or under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, as HIPAA records are also confidential — in order to hide shameful truths.
But in the case of police body cameras, it’s particularly distasteful.
The whole point of the cameras is to have an indisputable record of what happened. It’s not a definitive record — like humans, cameras can only get one perspective at a time — but each piece of footage gives a vital piece of information about police conduct that protects both citizens and officers themselves, who are often unjustly accused of inappropriate use of force.
That’s exactly why the city, police department and police foundation advocated for the cameras, which are now worn by every patrol officer in the city — to protect citizens and officers alike.
It’s a pretty sure bet that if Bloch’s body camera held footage exonerating him of wrongdoing, we would have already seen it.
Last week the city of Greensboro announced it would convene of a panel of “legal representatives” and “thought leaders” to discuss the cameras, whether or not the footage they capture can be considered public documentation and how state law applies here.
But we in the media speak with one voice on this: The public has every right to see footage recorded by a cop’s camera while the officer is on duty, especially if he shoots someone.