Wednesday, March 3, 2021
March 3, 2021

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In Our View: Body cameras worthy investment in transparency

The Columbian
Published:

The recent shooting of a 30-year-old Black man by Clark County sheriff’s deputies reinforces the need for body cameras to be worn by local law enforcement.

It took more than a week after Jenoah Donald was shot during a traffic stop for much information to become public. And the frustrating truth is that whatever details are ultimately put forth will automatically be viewed with suspicion. Without a video record of the incident, information will be the result of interpretations by the deputies involved.

During an age when the most mundane of daily activities are recorded and regarded as internet fodder, it is nonsensical that police interactions with the public can occur in obscurity. On the rare occasions those interactions turn violent, a video recording can help protect police who are rightly attempting to protect themselves and the public.

Local officials have correctly pointed to the cost of video systems and storage as a roadblock to adopting cameras worn by police and placed in squad cars. But taxpayers should be willing to cover the cost; it is a worthy investment in public safety, transparency and effective law enforcement.

In 2019, the Clark County Law and Justice Council was tasked with investigating the possibility of body cameras, following four officer-involved shootings. The group’s work has since been slowed by COVID-19, which is a tepid excuse for a pressing public issue.

While body cameras can help answer questions regarding the use of deadly force by officers, they should not be viewed as a panacea. Video doesn’t reveal all the details of a police-involved shooting, and there are questions about the parameters for releasing videos to the public. But roughly half of the nation’s law enforcement agencies have managed to answer those questions and implement body cameras; local agencies can do the same.

This, of course, is part of a larger issue that is reflected in calls for police reform. The Legislature is considering House Bill 1054, which contains provisions such as banning chokeholds, preventing law enforcement agencies from purchasing or using tear gas, and establishing a statewide de-escalation standard. Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, is a co-sponsor.

Meanwhile, state and local officials must address questions about what we expect from police departments. Increasingly, officers are expected to confront social issues, solving problems rather than preventing and solving crime. As a headline at Vox.com surmised last year: “We train police to be warriors — and then send them out to be social workers.”

This is outside the officers’ purview and often beyond the scope of their training, adding burdens to an already difficult and dangerous job. A vast majority of officers perform those jobs well while nobly protecting the public. But the use of force invariably breeds mistrust and leads to questions.

This mistrust is particularly prevalent in minority communities. Data compiled by The Washington Post shows that, over the past five years, Black Americans are three times more likely than white people to be killed by law enforcement; the rates also are elevated for other minority groups.

Even if a shooting is justified to protect officers or the public, transparency is essential. As Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said last year: “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.”

Local governments should work quickly to bring that to fruition.

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