The New York Times Weighs in on Jordan Edwards and Police Body Cams

This editorial from The New York Times editorial board was published in Sunday's print editions:The police officer who shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards last month in Balch Springs was arrested on a murder charge Friday after the Police Department determined from body-camera images and other information that deadly force had been unwarranted. But like most jurisdictions, the Dallas County Sheriff's Office — which is investigating this case — has no written body-cam policy and has made no decisions about making the footage public.Many communities adopted body cams in the wake of the public outcry over the police killings of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and others. The hope was that the cameras would bring transparency to the policing process, allowing the public to see how officers do their jobs. Misconduct could be recorded, and the devices could also provide evidence to exonerate officers who are falsely accused of misconduct.State legislators, however, have largely failed to specify how body cams are to be used — when they should be turned on or off, for example — and when their contents should be turned over to the public. This has left the matter in the hands of local police departments, which are inclined toward secrecy and could end up withholding video information from the public or restricting the times when cameras are to be used. Beyond that, privacy experts have cautioned that police departments could use the cameras to intensify surveillance of the public, particularly minority communities.New York City has just begun a closely watched body-cam pilot program that could change the way departments across the country approach this issue. The U.S. District Court in Manhattan ordered up the program when it declared New York's stop-and-frisk program unconstitutional in 2013.The program started last month in one precinct in upper Manhattan and is set to include 1,200 officers in 20 precincts by the end of the year. This large-scale study will allow the city to determine whether body cams make a difference in arrests, in complaints from citizens and in how police officers perform their jobs.Some civil rights groups are displeased that people who want to view police videocam footage of themselves have to file freedom of information requests, which the Police Department has a well-deserved reputation for resisting. They have called on the city to consider more streamlined procedures, like those used in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., so people can view their videos easily and quickly. Such a system would be consistent with the goal of improving transparency and public access.The loudest disagreements, though, have to do with when cameras are turned on or off. Some civil rights advocates argue, for example, that the rule requiring officers to record arrests and interactions with people suspected of crimes does not go far enough. They are urging that officers record most of their interactions with citizens.The Police Department counters that some members of the public have a right to expect privacy, including citizens who are volunteering information about crimes. But if officers are found to have committed abusive acts while their recorders were turned off as permitted under the rules, the need for greater recording will have been proved.The program is an experiment. As the system rolls out, the city and the court-appointed monitor who oversees the court settlement will need to pay attention to what is working and what is not, and change course as needed.  Continue reading...

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