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Body cameras mark next step for enforcing law

Police officers have been recording their conversations out in the field at least since the advent of the mini-cassette recorder. Throughout my 26-year career, law enforcement has used audio (and later audiovisual) recordings to regularly document certain contacts and preserve evidence of crimes.

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson Technology has been the driving force behind innovations in what is recorded and how it is stored. Law enforcement agencies are wise to adapt to new technology and to capitalize on those innovations that improve officer safety, reduce police liability, and create better documentation of police actions.

Body-worn cameras (“body cams”) provide the latest innovation in audiovisual recording of police encounters and, while novel in approach, the philosophy behind their use is not new. Body cams provide an improved tool in the hands of prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys, victims and the public for getting to the truth of matters that previously might have been subject only to human recall. Body cams — when functioning and well-placed on the officer — can provide real-time video footage with accompanying audio from the perspective of the officer engaged in a wide variety of enforcement and/or emergency calls for service.

Because the body cams are as mobile as the officers or deputies who are wearing them, they present a higher likelihood that a law enforcement encounter will be captured on video, thus providing a higher likelihood of indisputable documentation of the events police officers and deputies encounter every day.

But police, the courts, or the public shouldn’t see body cams as the panacea that will solve all of our documentation challenges. Cameras — even when operating correctly — generally will not capture every image, sound or other environmental factor that affects a police officer’s decisions. Camera angles can block certain views. The camera can become dislodged from the officer. Officers will not always have time to react fast enough to activate their cameras before making crucial decisions (For example, Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., became engaged in a physical struggle with Michael Brown while the officer was still seated in his patrol car).

The media and the public will need to temper expectations with the understanding that, while police agencies may be adopting body-cam policies, there will be plenty of times when video of law enforcement will not be available — not only due to exceptions that occur outside the officer’s control, but also due to policy that properly provides for officer discretion (A police officer may appropriately decide not to record certain contacts with victims or witnesses out of respect for their privacy, for example).

Still, I believe the use of body cams to be the next in line in the long-standing tradition of police using every possible tool to provide the best documentation of the decisions they make — from the decision to make an arrest to the decision to use force in the defense of an officer or citizen.

There is no way we can guarantee that every encounter will be recorded, but I know that we will have access to considerably more understanding of events that occur than we do now.

This expands the transparency of police organizations and increases the likelihood that encounters between the public and the police are well-documented. It has the potential to improve police professionalism and reduce false accusations against officers. It can make the difference in civil cases or in creating a safer environment for officers — when those who might otherwise do them harm know that everything is being recorded. These have always been important goals for police administrators, and body cams are the latest tool developed to help meet those goals.

Jeff Dickerson is the Columbia County sheriff. Columbia County sheriff’s deputies recently began wearing body cameras when dealing face to face with jail inmates.

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