Crescenta Valley Weekly Op-Ed: Department of Justice Should Play a Role in Funding Body Cameras for Local Police Departments

The sights and sounds we witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri during the protests following the death of Michael Brown are hard to forget -- violent out-of-town agitators disrupting peaceful protests, tear gas, rocks and gunshots, police on the streets in full riot and military gear, and vehicles that look more suited to Iraq than a suburb of St. Louis.  The shooting of an unarmed African-American youth exposed deep racial divides and the endemic mistrust between many minority communities and the police departments that serve them.

As the investigation into the death of Michael Brown illustrates, the circumstances of an officer-involved shooting can arouse the strongest passions in a community and breed an atmosphere of profound distrust. It doesn’t have to be this way. By encouraging models of policing that engage with the community and neighborhoods in a constructive and non-confrontational way, both police and civilians are better served.  One such approach would make use of a relatively new technology: small, lightweight body cameras.

Cities around the country have started to adopt cameras for their officers to create a record of police interactions, and the early returns are positive.  Having a video record of events not only deters the use of excessive force, but it also helps dispute or demonstrate claims of police brutality. And in either case, it improves community confidence in a just result. Studies done in localities that have implemented body-worn cameras have shown a positive impact by demonstrating a commitment to transparency and accountability and helping to deescalate potentially tense interactions.

A study conducted of the Rialto, California police department from 2012 to 2013 showed the potential of cameras. With half of the police department wearing cameras recording each interaction with the public, the department experienced an 88 percent reduction in complaints against officers. Additionally, the study found that shifts without cameras experienced twice as many use of force incidents as shifts using the cameras.

Other studies conducted in Mesa, Arizona and in the United Kingdom have also yielded promising results.  Right now, police departments – including the Ferguson Police Department, and larger ones like the Los Angeles Police Department and Anaheim Police Department – are moving forward with pilot programs and trial runs for officers wearing body-cameras.  And other cities and locales in Southern California are exploring whether it would be feasible to start their use, as well.

The biggest barrier that they face is funding.

I recently led an effort joined by thirty colleagues in the House – urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice to help fund local police departments’ purchase of small body-worn cameras.  In Ferguson, the Department of Justice played an important role in defusing the situation in the immediate aftermath by bringing in community relations experts to create a dialogue as well as initiating its own civil rights investigation.  The Justice Department can build on this effort, by assisting police departments in acquiring body cameras.

For many departments, the cost of purchasing the cameras as well as the technical infrastructure needed to maintain them and store recorded footage is prohibitive. A variety of Department of Justice programs already provide equipment and financial support to local law enforcement agencies, and I believe a portion of that should be set aside for body cameras. The Department of Justice should also support rigorous, scientific study on the effects of camera adoption by police agencies as well help to develop and disseminate best practices for their use.

These cameras will increase transparency, decrease tensions between police and community members, and create a record of events. The Department of Justice can use existing funding streams, or work with Congress to create a new pool of resources for local governments to help implement body-worn cameras for police officers throughout the country.

This is an idea whose time has come – and it’s time for the federal government to partner with local departments to make it happen.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) represents the 28th Congressional district, which includes the communities of Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park and surrounding areas.

By:  Adam Schiff
Source: Crescenta Valley Weekly