Sunday, April 11, 2021
April 11, 2021

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In Our View: Body-worn police cameras will bolster trust

The Columbian
Published:

Clark County and the city of Vancouver are moving in the right direction regarding police-worn body cameras. Leaders at both levels have recognized the importance of the issue and the role it can play in justice for the community and integrity for local government.

“The lack of movement on body-worn cameras is seriously impacting our credibility in the community, and I don’t think you can put a price tag on that,” City Councilor Erik Paulsen said Monday.

While local law enforcement should be equipped with cameras, the devices should not be viewed as a panacea that will end questions about racial injustice in policing. Changes in policy and training also are necessary, along with full transparency from police agencies and elected officials. But in a desire to ensure the trust of the public, body cameras would be an important step.

Vancouver City Council members appear to be in favor of fast-tracking a proposal to implement cameras for the city’s police department.

Following several use-of-force incidents in early 2019, officials solicited a report from the independent Police Executive Research Forum, which analyzes policing strategies, and formed a Community Task Force. The issue has gained additional prominence with two recent fatal shootings by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

While the task force is expected to continue its work until October, there is interest in pursuing body cameras before then.

“The recent (spate) of killings, for lack of a better way of putting it, has escalated that conversation to multiple levels,” task force member Ed Hamilton Rosales told city councilors. “Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to bifurcate the program to be able to implement the body cams that everybody — including the chief — wants, while still taking a look at the PERF report.”

Given the way budget cycles work, city officials say a full body-camera program likely will not be implemented before 2022. With the technology in widespread use throughout the nation, they should at least be able to lay the groundwork for implementation as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office has joined the chorus calling for body cameras. “A law enforcement agency that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record,” wrote the office, headed by Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik.

Notably, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins have supported the implementation of body cameras. The goal is not to punish police for use-of-force incidents but to demand oppenness and to find answers that might otherwise be unavailable.

Cameras can protect the public in the case of inappropriate police actions, but they also can protect officers by revealing the details of difficult situations that result in split-second decisions. A vast majority of officers are noble public servants performing difficult and dangerous jobs, and the use of force sometimes is necessary to protect officers and the public at large. When that happens, the utmost transparency and information is required.

Body-camera programs are expensive — both for implementation and the storage of video. But as local law enforcement strives to demonstrate that it is working in concert with the public to protect all members of our community, cameras would be a wise investment.

Trust between officers and the public they serve is an invaluable commodity. Body cameras can help bolster that trust.

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