The Verdict From Ferguson: Put Video Cameras on Cops

Photograph by The Washington Post via Getty Images

A St. Louis County, Mo., grand jury’s decision on Monday not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer in the nearby town of Ferguson who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black American, reignited national debate about race relations and law enforcement. It also underscored the wisdom of a relatively simple reform: putting video cameras on cops.

County prosecutor Robert McCulloch reported on Monday evening that his office had presented the 12-member grand jury, made up of nine whites and three blacks, with an exhaustive array of witness statements and physical evidence. McCulloch promised to release all the information available to the grand jury so members of the public can make up their own minds as to whether the grand jurors reached the correct conclusion—that there was not “probable cause” to indict Wilson.

In summarizing the evidence, McCulloch indicated that, in his opinion, Wilson had cause to fear for his life and justifiably used deadly force. Many disagreed, including the parents of Michael Brown, who said they felt let down by the justice system. Violence erupted on the streets of Ferguson.

Brown’s parents, to their great credit, urged an alternative to looting stores and throwing rocks at the police. They called for peaceful protest and a sensible change in police procedure–namely, a move to equip street officers with tiny video cameras that would record interactions with citizens, including criminal suspects.

If Darren Wilson had worn such a camera, we might know whether Michael Brown was shot with his hands raised in an effort to surrender, as some witnesses recounted, or attacked Wilson, as prosecutors apparently concluded. The Police Foundation, a nonprofit research group, last year published the results of an impressive study showing that use of body-worn video cameras in one California city “was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers.”

The study was overseen by Tony Farrar, the empirically-minded police chief of Rialto, Calif.—pop. 100,000—and Barak Ariel, a Ph.D. researcher affiliated with Cambridge University in the U.K. The year-long randomized, controlled trial was the first formal evaluation of video cameras worn by police on patrol, according to the foundation.

Half of Rialto’s officers on every shift were assigned wearable cameras that could be attached to their uniforms or sunglasses. ”The findings suggest more than a 50 percent reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control conditions,” according to the study. Moreover, Rialto citizens lodged about one-tenth the number of complaints about police conduct during the study period as they did during the prior 12 months.

Some police officers might reflexively resist video cameras. The way to overcome that resistance is to point out that if Ferguson’s Officer Wilson had worn one, his claim that he felt threatened could be reliably corroborated. Police conduct (or misconduct) is now frequently captured by cell phone video recorded by witnesses, who may or may not seek to memorialize events in an accurate way. If the police themselves do the recording systematically—as some departments already do with dashboard-mounted cameras in patrol cars—everyone would have a more complete version of disputed events.

Even better, the presence of cameras might deter the next Ferguson-style police shooting in the first place.

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