Police Cameras Offer Answers

Andy Monserud

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Illustration by MaryAnne Bowen

Those readers I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting in person should know that I proudly represent St. Paul, Minn. To those who don’t care, I hope you’ll forgive me for discussing a topic that’s quite literally close to home for me. A debate in the city council of St. Paul’s twin city, Minneapolis, caught my attention this week. Three city council members made a proposal to equip police officers with body cameras. The proposed measure is still in its infancy, but it’s not a bad idea. The police force in Minneapolis, of course, is wary of the idea, but it may benefit them more than they let on. Cameras would have a positive influence on police work for the police as well as the people they apprehend.

On the whole, I like police officers. They get a bad rap, but those that I have met have largely been pleasant, friendly people with a genuine interest in helping their communities. They are usually not interested in harassing citizens for the fun of it. In fact, none of them appear to look at their work as fun, but as a job and a necessary service to the community they belong to. Most officers understand and respect what they can and cannot do in the course of that service. But, just as nobody ever seems to suspect that their neighbor could do some horrific, criminal thing, we can’t always assume immaculate behavior from police officers. They are human, and like all of us, they make mistakes and sometimes they simply behave badly. Cameras would help prevent and prosecute incidents of police brutality, excessive force and other violations of the law by police officers, and it would help innocent officers keep their names out of the mud. This would save the city millions of dollars in settlements, more than paying for the cameras’ bill. As of Aug. 17, the Minneapolis Police Department faces 61 excessive force lawsuits, 53 of which were filed in the last three years. One officer is responsible for 13 excessive force complaints since he was hired in 2000. The city and other agencies settled nine of these for a total cost of over $700,000. The city of Minneapolis evidently believes this officer is worth keeping around. Video cameras would certainly help clear up the cases, one way or the other.  

Not only would cameras protect police officers’ reputations; they could help protect their lives –– or at least ensure the capture of those who perpetuate violence against police officers. Five Minneapolis police officers were killed between 2009 and the end of 2012, one of which sparked the city’s longest investigation in a case of this kind since 1970. This represents a substantial spike from the period of relative stability in the ranks between 1998 and 2008. The Minneapolis police force appears hesitant to adopt a more stringent policy regarding cameras, but ultimately the cameras would do more to protect officers than to harm them, especially if they do their jobs the way regulations prescribe.

Police already use body cameras in many major cities. The New York Police Department will deploy them in certain high-stop neighborhoods, and the city of Oakland, Calif. uses 500 such cameras, one for most of about 600 officers. New Orleans talks to implement body-camera surveillance soon, too. In Seattle, the home of many Whitman students, the last mention of such cameras came in 2011. It’s high time to resurrect that idea. From a technical and economical standpoint, cameras become more viable every year. The arguments against them are fast disappearing.  

In Walla Walla, we may have to wait a while for a proposal of this kind to gain any steam. Cameras are expensive, and they require a fair amount of systems overhaul and political juggling. In a small town like this where it’s much easier to keep a police force in check without them, I can understand that the investment might be a little much. But police officers may want them for their own protection. The camera trend is an exciting one, and I hope it will eventually spread nationwide for the benefit of law-abiding citizens, unfairly treated criminals and police officers alike.

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