After years of foot-dragging, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has returned to the table on the issue of outfitting city police with body cameras — a crucial reform in the post-Ferguson world but one her administration previously has shunned as too expensive. Strained relations between police and the public are a greater expense, and the cameras can help mitigate that strain.
Fueling the controversies surrounding Ferguson five years ago were the still-unresolved questions about what actually happened in the minutes before police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death. Conflicting eyewitness accounts certainly contributed to the tension and violence that followed during protests.
Many of those questions could have been answered, definitively and immediately, had Wilson been wearing a body camera. Since Ferguson, the value of the cameras has been embraced not just by reformers, because they can gird bad behavior by cops (or provide evidence against them if they abuse their power anyway), but also by many police officials, who know the cameras can back up the accounts of officers falsely accused of abuse.
Krewson’s administration two years ago backed out of a trial use of the cameras, saying other police expenditures were more important — a stance her staff reiterated just a few weeks ago. But in a recent meeting, under pressure from Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, Krewson agreed to form a committee to seek vendors to outfit St. Louis police with the cameras.
Numerous studies have found that police body cameras dramatically reduce citizen complaints of police misconduct. There is debate about whether that means cops are engaging in less misconduct when they know it’s being recorded, or (as some police organizations contend) citizens are less likely to make false accusations of misconduct when they know the camera will prove they’re lying. Whichever scenario is playing out, it’s an argument for having that objective lens on the scene.
For those times when the camera doesn’t act as a deterrent, it can act as evidence. In Baltimore recently, a body camera captured a police officer planting drugs that were used as an excuse to arrest a suspect, who was ultimately freed because of the video. In Connecticut, a body camera proved that two officers opened fire on an unarmed couple in a car as the driver was trying to put his hands in the air.
Conversely, in Arkansas in 2017, two officers were cleared of allegations in the fatal shooting of a teenager when a body camera established that — as they’d claimed — the suspect pointed a weapon at them.
Yes, body cameras for St. Louis’ 1,100 police officers would be a significant expense for a cash-strapped city. But if Ferguson should have taught authorities anything, it’s the overwhelming value of having a clear, irrefutable account of what happens between police and the public.