Police and the Court of Public Opinion

What the hell is going on out there? That's the question coming from this remote corner of rural America... Are police "murderers," as some suggest, or are they just "doing what it takes" to protect and serve? Are blacks being unfairly targeted with overwhelmingly lethal force or are the shootings a justified response to criminal behavior?

No matter your answer, it appears the one thing we can all agree on is the need to have quick and decisive investigations. Transparency and accountability are the first steps in (re)building trust between communities and government. Jason Sole, chair of the Minneapolis NAACP's criminal justice committee says "We want justice immediately" while Minneapolis Police Chief Harteau says "We need to know exactly what happened, we need to know the truth."

Immediate. Exact. These competing demands will always be countervailing without accurate video of the event, and it appears that body cameras have become the de facto solution of choice. Body cams, we are inclined to believe, will help clear this toxic atmosphere...

Not so fast. Not unreasonably, many communities reject body cameras as they feel it invades their privacy. Officers also express reservations with using body cameras while fulfilling their community policing mandate since community policing requires officers to "become familiar with the local inhabitants." Friendly, informal conversations are nearly impossible with a camera acting as a judgmental, recording third party.

Consequently, officers with body cameras periodically have to either turn off the camera or remove it entirely while on duty. This would be a reasonable solution if emergencies weren't, well... emergent. Officers often don't even buckle their seat belts when responding to a call because it slows them down. Seconds matter, and dealing with a clumsy body camera could cost someone's life.

And yet, only documentary evidence can provide the transparency and accountability demanded on all sides of the issue. Outrage and social unrest would likely unfold around an officer involved in a shooting where the body camera was turned off. It is simply too easy, particularly in this heightened emotional state, to assume the worst. An officer in a volatile situation may have the camera off to A) hide a vicious and "shoot first" modus, or B) be in such a hurry to protect the innocent that he or she simply forgot to turn it on. Unfortunately, the court of public opinion is not very concerned with the reasons for lack of documentary evidence.

Another difficulty with body cameras is they often miss the critical life and death moments due to (understandable) problems with alignment and timing. The obstructed and misaligned camera views produce unreliable evidence where and when it is needed most. Lives are on the line every time an officer draws a weapon, and officers are unlikely to adjust their firing tactics and positioning to improve evidence capture.

Some innovative solutions are in the works (I've a friend developing a camera that attaches to the bottom of the officer's firearm magazine) that may help be an overlapping line of documentary evidence. It's unfortunate that we have to resort to these kinds of technical interventions, but this is the new normal.

In time, and with the right kind of evidence, perhaps the court of public opinion can be better informed before deciding its verdict.