I’ll say it right away so there’s no confusion: police in the United States need to wear body cameras. They need to start wearing them right away, and they need to do so voluntarily. But that’s the easy part of police reform: the rest will be much, much harder.
The body camera idea is finally starting to catch on. President Obama wants Congress to fund body cameras for 50,000 police officers as part of his response to protests and violence in the aftermath of the non-indictment of Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, and suddenly people around the country are waking up to the fact that it’s a good idea.
Body cameras make sense for both police and the communities they serve. They will take a lot of the back-and-forth, hearsay, and doubt out of cases like Ferguson. Cameras have already proven their worth in holding the worst cops to account: earlier this year, an Enfield, Conn. police officer was caught on camera brutally abusing a suspect. He is now off the force. Video footage of the deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice have provoked national outrage.
Body cameras can also be a huge boon to police. A lot of frivolous claims are made against cops who do their jobs and do them well; camera evidence could help put an end to a lot of that. Plus, it’s hard to imagine that body camera footage wouldn’t be incredibly valuable in training and evaluation of police tactics. Police in New London already are rarely indicted at all. There are structural, cultural, and political reasons why not — and indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has given police officers wide latitude in the use of force. With police becoming more and more militarized, it’s not surprising when that force gets used and abused.
Ferguson once again illustrated the deep rift that has festered for decades between police and communities of color. I’m white, I wouldn’t presume to speak for the experiences of people of color; I encourage people to seek out what people of color are saying about their experiences with police. The Twitter hashtag #AliveWhileBlack is a good place to start.
So that’s how we got to today — structural racism and unconscious bias intersecting with police departments that have the legal and political latitude to use deadly force. Now, how do we get past today?
It’s hard to admit that there’s something rotten buried deep within our system of justice — and even harder to admit that the problem starts with white paranoia and deep-seated racism. But that’s exactly what we can no longer ignore.
Connecticut’s legislature, in the upcoming 2015 session, must make reforming the justice system a high priority. Yes, we need to have cops wear body cameras, and police officers must not be allowed to remove or turn them off while on duty. That’s step one. But beyond that, we have to make certain that accountability exists and is consistent for everyone. There can’t be one standard of justice for police officers and another for everyone else. There can’t be one standard of justice for white Americans, and another, much harsher standard for everyone else.
There should be no one more invested in this process than those who work in and believe in the justice system — because this awful double standard undermines the whole thing. There are lots of great cops out there — I’ve met many of them. Reform — as well as getting rid of the not-so-good cops — will make their jobs easier.
I feel for the people out there who are scared and heartbroken. White America must admit that we have a huge problem with race in this country, and strive to do better. It’s up to every single one of us to change — we owe it to our fellow citizens, and to ourselves as well.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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