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Using Technology To Counter Police Mistrust Is Complicated

Outfitting police officers with body cameras seems to be the most concrete solution to come out of the police misconduct accusations in Ferguson, Mo. And the push for cameras extends far beyond the suburban Missouri police department — more than 153,000 people have signed a "We the People" petition to create a "Mike Brown Law" that would require all police to wear cameras.

Ferguson officers didn't have dashboard cameras for their vehicles, much less body cameras, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot in August, or during the chaotic protests and crowd control that followed his death. But now, thanks to a donation by two security companies, the police department is outfitted with about 50 cameras, which were already used during a protest last week.

It follows a national trend toward using these cameras. They are particularly appealing in places where police distrust is high because of prior histories of misconduct.

The argument is that technology can curb officers from acting out of line and help counter police distrust in the community. NPR's Martin Kaste has reported extensively on the camera trend sweeping law enforcement agencies:

"In this job, we're frequently accused of things we haven't done, or things were kind of embellished, as far as contact," Bainbridge Island, Wash., officer Ben Sias told Kaste. "And the cameras show a pretty unbiased opinion of what actually did happen."

People do seem to act differently when they know they're being recorded, and the ACLU has argued that cameras act as an important check on the power of police. To wit, the Wall Street Journal reported that a recent Cambridge University study looked into a yearlong trial of cameras by the police department in Rialto, Calif., and found an 89 percent decline in the number of complaints against officers.

But this doesn't mean problems of not knowing what exactly happened between police officers and the people will disappear completely. Recordings aren't completely neutral, depending on when they started and stopped, the camera angle and perspective and many other variables. While these devices can provide much-needed accountability, how and when to use them often falls on the police departments. Tech entrepreneur Sean Bonner writes:

"In Los Angeles the LAPD (which has been trying to overcome an unfortunate reputation the department earned very publicly in 1991 with the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal a few years later) are required to wear voice recorders which switch on automatically when their cruiser sirens are activated and record voice audio within a certain range of the car once the officer steps outside. The benefit here is obvious and the argument was made that this would ensure accountability. Which it would if they worked, but mysteriously the recorders stopped working and this kept happening until the department was forced to admit that their internal investigations showed that officers were purposefully breaking off the antennas on their recorders to disable them. Perhaps unsurprisingly the majority of the sabotaged recorders were in the Southeast division — a low income, high minority area with a long history of excessive force complaints. One can imagine mandatory body cameras might suffer similar 'technical problems.' "

In the case of Ferguson, the department there says it didn't file the most basic record of the police shooting of Brown — a written police incident report. So whether it would willfully choose to record video of such incidents before they happen is a question.

And if confrontations are recorded, will the records be released? That gets to the thorny video ownership question. As Kaste has reported:

"While police videos are generally considered public records, in practice, they're often difficult to obtain. Most cities refuse to turn over footage that is part of an investigation, and some are now instituting restrictions based on privacy concerns."

So even if the raw footage is captured, and police actually recorded a disputed incident, the police department or the city might not release it.

In short, cameras can help. But when the cops get to choose when they record and whether to release video, they clearly aren't a cure-all for the trust problems ailing law enforcement.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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