police

Members of several New York Police Department precincts in each of the city’s five boroughs and a public housing area will soon be outfitted with body cameras, the police commissioner announced Thursday, to see if the devices can improve relations between police and the public.

If ever there were relations that need to be improved, it’s between police officers and the people they’re supposed to serve. The NYPD itself has been caught up in scandal after scandal, whether it was the racial profiling encouraged by stop-and-frisk laws or the murder of an unarmed black man who repeatedly told officers that he couldn’t breathe before he was killed during an arrest.

The NYPD isn’t the only police department that needs to learn how to better serve the public. Perhaps the most prominent example of the strained relationship between officers and civilians comes courtesy of Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where a police officer killed unarmed Michael Brown in August, prompting numerous protests and drawing attention to the militarization of police.

It’s assumed that equipping officers with a camera might have led to different outcomes — and there’s some evidence to support that claim, as criminologist Michael White told NPR, based on a pilot program in the city of Rialto:

There was a really remarkable drop in complaints against officers who were wearing cameras. We’re talking on the order of 88 or 90 percent. That is truly remarkable. Officer use of force also dropped. … So, a lot of people have been talking about those findings and suggesting that when officers wear cameras, it changes the dynamics of the encounter. The term I use is, it has a ‘civilizing effect.’ That is, officers are less likely to engage in rude or inappropriate behavior, and citizens are less likely to be aggressive and resistant.

So long as “civilizing effect” can be translated to “preventing police from using the military tools they’ve been provided by the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security” or “stopping officers from killing unarmed men,” the study White describes is promising. The best way to discourage bad behavior, as anyone who’s ever had to teach a toddler how to behave knows, is to let people know they’re being watched. It might be harder to apply that concept to people carrying automatic weapons and driving tanks, but it’s really the same basic principle.

Which brings us to this pilot program in New York, which comes after police in Ferguson were equipped with similar devices and amidst plans from cities like Chicago and Washington DC to test similar programs with their own police departments. It lends some hope to the idea that eventually all police officers might have to operate under the assumption that their actions are being recorded at all times.

That’s the real goal for many people. A petition requiring such a law in all states, cities, and counties has already attracted more than 150,000 signatures, which will require the White House to respond, even if it’s unable to bring such a law into existence. Several cities, included the ones listed above and who-knows-how-many others, are planning to do just that. There might still be a shred of hope for the thousands of police forces across the United States yet.

There are other issues that need to be fixed, of course. There really is little reason to outfit police with weapons typically used by soldiers. There’s even less reason to give them the stuff for free and failing to see what they do with the equipment. Maybe there could be a compromise — if police officers are willing to wear cameras, we’re willing to allow them to keep their fancy military guns. It’s still not a fair trade for the public, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we’ve got now.