Well-done, Commissioner Ramsey.
No, that’s not patronizing or sarcastic. I’m genuinely excited that the commissioner has announced his support for outfitting Philadelphia Police officers with so-called “body cameras” — like the dash cams attached to police cars, only attached to the officers themselves.
The cameras can only aid the cause of justice in Philadelphia. They’ll aid police, backing up their descriptions of crimes and crime scenes that they witness, giving prosecutors and juries confidence that they’re getting the full story. (See the Wolfcon commercial above, compiled of clips officers apparently believed help back their stories.) But they might also restrain the worst impulses of the department’s rogue officers: In Rialto, California, use of force fell by 60 percent — and citizen complaints by 88 percent — in the first year. That’s astonishing.
And that’s why Ramsey wants to start a pilot program, testing the cameras, by year’s end.
"I think it's the way to go," he told the Inquirer. "I think it's something that's long overdue in our department."
Agreed. So a round of applause to the commissioner for taking a step that could lead to meaningful, productive change, that could, in turn, lead more Philadelphians to genuinely trust their police department. A little accountability can go a long way.
That said, slapping cameras on cops is just the beginning of getting to that accountability. There are two steps that should probably accompany the pilot program.
• Rules ensuring the cameras are used properly. Civil rights attorney Jonathan Turley points us this week to New Orleans, where an officer shot and wounded a young man — just minutes after she’d turned off her body camera because, she says, she was headed back to her station at the end of her shift. Thus, a critical piece of evidence, one that might exonerate or convict the officer, is not in existence.
Turley writes: “ I am still unclear why these body cameras can even be turned off by officers. The point of a body camera should be that it runs from check in to check out. It should not be under the control of the officer to guarantee a record that cannot be challenged by either side. That would avoid the troubling appearance of an officer with a prior run-in with a suspect who turns off her camera minutes before shooting the suspect in the head.”
He’s right. Philadelphia should have rules that officers cannot switch off cameras until their duty shift is completely over. Given the stakes, the rules probably need to be accompanied with strict penalties — the loss of pay and overtime, say, for every shift in which officer turns in an incomplete record. Trust of police will not go up if videos go missing in critical situations and there’s no accountability for it. Best to set the guidelines early instead of deal with the headache later.
Officers wearing the cameras were present during at least two shootings earlier this year. Yet we're still not any closer to knowing what happened in those chaotic moments — whether the perpetrators can be easily identified, what kind of interactions the officers had with those present, nothing.
That's because the department claims the footage, which is captured by devices financed by city taxpayers and worn by officers on the public payroll, aren't public records. Our newsroom's request for footage from the shootings under the California Public Records Act was denied.
So let’s be clear: The job of body cameras shouldn’t be just judicial and evidentiary — they should be used, also, to give the public a clear view of what happens when police encounters go wrong.
The good thing about letting other cities get the jump on us, accountability-wise, is that we can learn from their missteps. Commissioner Ramsey is wise to seek out body cameras in the first place; he’ll be even more worthy of applause if he creates policies that let the cameras be used effectively.
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