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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Police body cameras part of needed reforms

The Columbian
Published: February 3, 2023, 6:03am

The killing of a 29-year-old man by Memphis police officers demonstrates the limitations — and the possibilities — of police-worn body cameras.

Knowledge that their actions were being filmed and preserved did not prevent officers from engaging in an attack that their own police chief called “heinous, reckless and inhumane.” Tyre Nichols died three days after being beaten by police following what started as a routine traffic stop.

But the presence of bodycams did provide the public with painful answers to necessary questions about what exactly happened. Memphis police released four videos of the beating — three from body-worn cameras and another from a camera perched atop a light pole.

As the issue draws national attention and renews calls for police reform, it also reinforces the need for police departments in Clark County to continue their push toward the use of body cameras. The evidence provided by such cameras not only illuminates police actions, but protects officers from specious claims of brutality.

Efforts to implement body cameras and dashboard cameras among local law enforcement have moved in fits and starts, but they are progressing.

In August, Clark County voters approved an increase of 0.1 percent to the sales tax for the funding and operation of bodycams and dashcams. The fact that the tax increase was supported by 59 percent of voters is a strong signal that the public views the devices as an important facet of public safety.

As County Councilor Gary Medvigy said when the council agreed to put the measure on the ballot: “I think it’s been universally supported throughout the county by law enforcement. It provides more transparency. It provides for better policing. It provides more evidence of what happened to get to the heart of charging decisions or settlement decisions.”

The county is joined by other local law enforcement agencies. In Vancouver, $3 million in city funds has been combined with a $1.5 million federal grant for the implementation of a camera program that is expected to cost $5.5 million over five years. And last year, the Camas Police Department became the first local agency to begin using body cameras.

Body cameras should be viewed as an essential piece of modern policing, but they are not a panacea. As Vancouver City Councilor Ty Stober has said: “Cameras are a point of reference. They are not truth.”

As camera programs are implemented — and as incidents of brutality draw national attention — it is important to ponder what the public expects from the presence of bodycams. As Rachel M. Cohen wrote this week for Vox.com: “While body-worn cameras have represented a widely adopted reform, it’s hard to find much evidence that they’ve substantially improved community trust.”

Various studies have indicated that police body cameras have reduced the use of force in fatal and nonfatal encounters by 10 percent. But questions about their efficacy remain, pointing out the need for additional police reforms.

In Washington, several measures could be meaningful: The establishment of more training facilities, including one in Vancouver; ensuring that officers fired from one agency don’t land law enforcement jobs elsewhere; revamping pursuit laws and allowing officers to do their jobs.

Some of those have been addressed and warrant additional scrutiny. Finding a balance that best protects the public is an ongoing endeavor, and body cameras are only one part of ongoing reform.