In the wake of a grand jury decision not to proceed with charges against the officer who shot their son, the parents of slain Ferguson, Mo., teen Michael Brown called on people to back one simple measure to change the relationship between citizens and police: "Join us in our campaigns to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera."
Michael Brown's parents are right. The case against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed their son, turns on a simple question: Was he justified in firing his weapon? His story, of being attacked by the young man, seems incredible. But had the officer been wearing a lapel-mounted camera, we wouldn't be speculating. There would be video and audio evidence.
Earlier this year, former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci came to the same conclusion as the Brown family. As part of his inquiry into interactions between Toronto police and people with mental illnesses, interactions often resulting in the death of a troubled but not necessarily dangerous civilian, Mr. Iacobucci called for officers to wear body-mounted cameras. Several Canadian police forces have conducted trials, and police in Calgary are planning to put cameras on hundreds of front-line officers.
When officers know they are being watched, they behave differently. The Rialto, Calif., police department, one of the few to have studied the impact of the devices, showed a marked drop in the number of incidents of police use of force. At the same time, police also faced fewer complaints from the public – perhaps because you can't claim to have been assaulted by the police if the video shows otherwise.
Yes, police cameras will have to be carefully studied and regulated. In fact, Alberta's Privacy Commissioner is already looking into Calgary's cameras. The force is planning on combining them with facial recognition software, and that raises red flags. The move could turn every officer into a mobile, closed-circuit camera, hooked up to a database tracking and recording people's movements across the city. That would not be desirable. But under appropriate safeguards, body-mounted cameras may be able to deter unlawful acts by police, and by members of the public interacting with the police. Knowing that your actions could one day be played before a judge and jury tends to concentrate the mind.