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Monday, May 9, 2016

POLICE BODY CAMERAS

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New tool introduces more checks and balances for citizens and police alike

According to Bossier City Chief of Police Shane McWilliams, either members of his department can take the video of interactions with citizens – or “somebody’s out there to do it for you.”

McWilliams’ observation at last Tuesday’s Bossier City Council meeting comes as more and more police departments are adopting the use of police body cameras as a way to document police interactions with folks they stop or question – providing generally indisputable documentation of those actions. The Bossier City Police Department is one of those departments.

But there are pros and cons concerning the use of police body cameras – and those who study the issue suggest that while accountability may be greatly improved through the use of the cameras, several issues are of concern.

According to a New England College study, privacy issues are often cited as concerns in the use of the cameras. Specifically cited: the use of the body camera videos for entertainment value, burgeoning public records requests to police departments for providing their body camera videos for Web sites unrelated to policing, and the trust issue – i.e., a domestic violence victim who’s less inclined to speak knowing the camera is rolling.

These are all issues to be considered when deciding on the use of police body cameras, and as carefully as the Bossier City Police Department has explored the issue, it’s expected that McWilliams and his department are cognizant of these pros and cons.

McWilliams’ observation came following a most informative update on the Bossier City Police Department’s “Body Worn Video Camera Project” during the council meeting. BCPD Sgt. Michael Brown and Office Jay Johnson presented the update.

Brown said to council members that the BCPD’s pilot project commenced in September 2015 with three officers equipped with the cameras – along with the cameras that were already in BCPD police vehicles. That number has increased to 15 officers, and it’s anticipated that by June 2016, all BCPD police officers will be issued the body cameras. It was also noted during the presentation that between the police vehicle cameras and body cameras, there will be two vantage points from which to view police officer interaction with the public.

According to Brown, “The camera is an independent witness. It gives correct, nonbiased” reports of the officer’s interactions.

And he cited a 2014 International Association of Police Chief’s assertion that cameras are likely to:

• improve accountability, • reduce complaints of police misconduct, • save thousands of dollars in court costs, • lower overtime costs for investigations and court appearances, • improve ability to collect evidence for trial, and • increase professionalism by forcing officers to give more attention to following agency rules.

Brown said the police department is already seeing positive results of the body camera use, noting that the camera video is used as evidence in prosecution. And he said his own personal experience is that “once a person notices [the camera], their whole attitude changes.”

It’s also equally likely that a police officer interacting with the public while wearing a body camera comes to the interaction with a professional demeanor – so with the attitude of both folks in the situation contributing, it would seem to confirm the Police Chiefs’ Association contention of positive outcomes for the use of body camera.

But lingering concerns about privacy issues remain, and while it’s probably worthwhile to explore how those issues might be mitigated, it’s unlikely to happen in our open computer/video age. We might, however, attempt to ensure that victims of domestic violence and sex crimes might be afforded some sense of confidentiality in order to be forthright in reporting crimes.

In the meantime, folks dealing with members of the BCPD might be forewarned – your interactions with these officers will soon be memorialized, so choose your words and behavior carefully.

Marty Carlson, a freelance writer, has been covering local news for the past 17 years. She can be reached via e-mail at martycarlson1218@ gmail.com.

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