Monday, July 13, 2020
July 13, 2020

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In Our View: Body cameras benefit public, police

The Columbian

Body cameras worn by police can aid investigations into crime and police conduct while bolstering public confidence in local law enforcement. Clark County officials should move forward in the procurement and use of the devices.

“I think that there’s complete agreement that body cams need to be implemented, and I think that’s a big part of the transparency component,” Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said following a recent meeting of the Law and Justice Council. “I’m in support of that change. I fully expect the body cams will be implemented, and it will happen on a pretty quick timeline.”

That would be beneficial for both the public and for officers, allowing for a review of police actions. The issue has become a national talking point in the wake of high-profile instances of police misconduct, including the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police.

But body cameras are not a panacea that will eliminate misconduct, nor do they come without cost. “We have no issue with body-worn cameras themselves as a tool that can be used in the field,” Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said. “The issues are cumbersome and can be difficult. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

The implementation of cameras should be accompanied by additional reforms and adequate funding. As Stateline reported earlier this year, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., found that “the effectiveness of the cameras depends on when officers are required to turn them on, whether they must review the video before they write incident reports, and whether videos are released to people involved in an incident or to the public.”

The release of videos is an ongoing question. Critics of cameras point out, for example, that many police calls involve domestic violence or sexual assault, and that victims could be shown on camera. That is problematic, but not impossible to overcome. Legislative action should define the circumstances under which videos will enter the public domain.

Meanwhile, cost is a continuing concern, particularly for small agencies. Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy, chair of the Law and Justice Council, said: “If there’s any possibility of having added efficiency and centralized procedures, because it’s just a huge amount of data storage requirements, then we should look at the possibility of everyone kind of joining together.”

In Congress, competing bills have been introduced to address police reforms. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has co-sponsored a Republican bill, saying: “It’s time for Congress to take action to make sure every single one of us is treated equally, has the same access to justice, and can count on law enforcement to keep us safe.”

Body-worn cameras can help do that, even if they do not provide all the answers in a controversial case involving the use of force. As a study at George Mason University notes: “Officers and citizens both seem to believe that BWCs can protect them from each other.”

That is important at a time of mistrust between police and many in the public. A vast majority of officers are dedicated public servants who are essential to a civilized society; those who are not must be identified and removed from service.

In Clark County, that will require cooperation between large law enforcement agencies and small-town police forces despite the challenges involved. As Kim Kapp of the Vancouver Police Department said, “it is clear we need to overcome them and implement body-worn cameras.”