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More Cameras, Less Police "Misconduct"?

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Experts say cutting-edge body cameras like those used by Rialto Police Department could drastically reduce allegations of police brutality and misconduct such as the Michael Brown shooting in Missouri

By Corey Arvin


It may seem like an anomaly. Virtually every other week new stories of alleged civil rights violations by police officers sprung to life all over the U.S. this summer. The temperature in black communities are hotter now than any other point this year as witnessed this weekend with the fallout after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Missouri, was shot by a police officer.

Despite the violence and looting that has overshadowed the otherwise modest demonstrations, peace keepers and community leaders fatigued by strained relations with the police are searching for long-term solutions. On Saturday, buried within the crowd of demonstrators who took to the streets before violence erupted, some protesters carried signs calling for cameras on police officers.

Experts say cameras accompanying police officers isn’t a farfetched potential solution.

Last year, Rialto Police Department adopted the department-wide use of body cameras on its police officers. Rialto Police Department was the first police organization in the U.S. to deploy the cameras as a part of a randomized control trial experiment. The experiment began in February 2012 following Police Chief Tony Farrar’s attendance at University of Cambridge, where he was exposed to an array of technological studies and concepts that analyze the impact of technology on efficient public safety. Farrar was presented the idea of body cameras Barak Ariel, PhD, an analyst and lecturer at University of Cambridge.

Farrar returned to Rialto and deployed the cameras on police officer, rotating them on select shifts and compiling data every week. After the trial experiment concluded in February of last year, the data collected indicated dramatic drops in police incidents and complaints. Rialto Police Department reported an 88 percent drop in complaints filed against its officers and a 60 percent drop in use-of-force incidents.

“There is some evidence that the camera is having an impact, whether on the officer or the citizen,” said Farrar.

However, Farrar emphasized that the assumption officers will be less likely to actively respond to crime because they’re under surveillance is false. The experiment indicated that officers are more likely to respond and also be proactive in pursuing crime.

Only one week after the trial experiment concluded last year, with the support of the City Council, city administrators, and Mayor Deborah Robertson, Rialto Police Department employed the cameras full time. This year, reports showed similar results as the previous, with an 83 percent decrease in complaints filed and 46 percent decrease in use-of-force incidents, compared to the year before the cameras were used.

“I think at some point in your career [as a police chief], you have to look at your organization and say ‘are we doing the best we can, not just for the department, but for the community’,” he said.

According to Farrar, the financial liabilities a city faces in civil rights and misconduct-related lawsuits is a compelling reason why more police departments should invest in body camera technology.

On July 31, high-ranking officials from New York City Police Department met with Farrar and staff to examine how the body camera experiment has worked for Rialto Police Department, he said.

“They are in the process of moving in that direction,” said Farrar.

“There are some costs to get it up and going, depending on your department size. ... To outfit police in New York would cost more than Rialto.”

A Strong Proposition

NYPD is still embroiled in controversy over the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six children who died last month after a police officer applied an illegal chokehold, surrounded by several additional police officers. The ordeal was recorded by a cellphone and the video went viral. Garner could be heard on the video telling the officer he could not breathe. The incident prompted an outcry from the family of the victim and civil rights activists who called for a full investigation and reform. NYPD was again criticized late last month after one of its police officers allegedly placed a pregnant black woman in a chokehold. The incident, which was also recorded on a cellphone, is currently under investigation.

Similar headlines gripped the nation in June when cellphone video footage captured a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer beating a black woman, allegedly evading arrest. In the video, the woman did not appear to be combative or resisting arrest. CHP officials pledged to investigate the complaint, but civil rights activists have urged for a federal investigation.

From California to New York, activists say the backdrop of recent cases with black civilians appearing to be victimized by white police officers could have led to the fever pitch that sparked anger and outrage in Ferguson, Mo.

According to St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt, the black community in Missouri is far from exempt from tension that comes from police officers constantly patrolling black communities.

“There is a lot of frustration with the police department. A lot of anger is pent up. Just look at the disparity index in the African-American community. Even though people say there is not a disparity, it does show a high amount of contact between police officers and young African-Americans. Anyone who is having contact [with police] on an ongoing basis, is going to be angry, whether the contact justifiable or unjustifiable,” he said.

Ferguson’s police force is more than 90 percent white and the community is about 67 percent black, which underscores a potential rift between public safety and the majority of its citizens. And according to racial profiling data in a report last year, black drivers accounted for about 85 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson.

Pruitt said body cameras such as those used by Rialto Police Department could have a positive impact if they were more used by more police officers.

Pruitt believes there is a culture with local police that demonstrates a lack of sympathy for blacks, compounding the tensions there. Pruitt says the socio-economic factors that many blacks live with daily are not considered enough by law enforcement officials.

“...Geographically, because of where my situation has placed me, and regardless of if I am a criminal or not, I am subject to the exact same amount of scrutiny of law enforcement that they would give Al Capone,” said Pruitt, describing a common scenario for black citizens.

In Ferguson, protestors and police alike have been criticized for their handling of the Michael Brown shooting. During protests this week, an officer was purported to be heard on video calling oncoming protestors “animals”, possibly highlighting the dissension between the black community and some officers in Ferguson.

Pruitt, who is close to some of the activists that have been involved in the demonstrations in Ferguson, refuted claims that the unrest initially began without merit. According to Pruitt, it was purported to him that officers allegedly fired two flares as oncoming protestors approached their position. One flare was fired into the air, and another fired directly at the ground, before the situation began to unravel. Those details, Pruitt said, have been widely unreported.

“That is what I have been told by some credible witnesses,” he said.

According to Olu K. Orange, a civil rights attorney and Adjunct Professor at University of Southern California (USC), the number of incidents involving police misconduct allegations are likely not much higher than in the past, they are just more visible because they increasingly reported and recorded by cellphones, adding substance to complaints.

“I know tons of police misconduct cases. People strangled to death, shot to death ...  a lot of them have not been reported. ... Hundreds happen in L.A.,” said Orange.

Orange, who advocates for the use of body cameras on officers, said the enormity of alleged police misconduct cases in Los Angeles has buoyed his case load.

“The cost [of implementing cameras] is totally eclipsed by the saving with liability judgments for example,” said Orange. Orange also argued it’s in the best interest of any officer who feels innocent of any wrongdoing to advocate for body cameras since they are not protected from being sued for punitive damages.

Orange said body cameras may not lead to instantly improving better ties between law enforcement and the black community if immediately implemented. However, if more police departments adopted the technology and it generated better training, more police oversight, and deterred potential improper police practices, it could help jump start establishing trust between both sides.

Corey Arvin is a Contributing Editor for Black Voice News. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyArvin

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