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Body cameras on cops are just the beginning

It’s time to listen to more of the police-accountability movement’s demands

August 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

The grass-roots push to equip police officers with body cameras has been effective: One-third of all police departments now have them, a significant increase since 2013, when the US Justice Department found that 75 percent of surveyed police departments didn’t use the technology.

Recent incidents in Cincinnati and rural New Hampshire have shown that the cameras simultaneously hold trigger-happy cops accountable and exonerate police officers who only pulled the trigger when they had no other option. Now, it’s time for local governments to start listening to and implementing further demands of the police-accountability movement.

On July 19, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing’s body camera captured footage of his fatal encounter with Samuel DuBose, in which he shot and killed the unarmed young man just minutes after pulling him over for a routine traffic stop. While Ray Tensing’s official report claimed that he was “almost run over” and had to fire his weapon out of fear for his life, his body camera showed him attempting to open DuBose’s door, DuBose holding the door shut and starting the engine, and Tensing shooting him in the head after telling him to stop.

Joseph Deters, the district attorney who indicted Tensing on murder charges, said in a press conference that Tensing’s behavior was “an absolute tragedy.” If it weren’t for the body camera footage, Deters would’ve likely believed Tensing’s story and Tensing would have never had to face a jury for his actions.

Similarly, the recent shooting of a knife-wielding man in New Hampshire was caught on tape, exonerating the officers who killed him. On July 6, 41-year-old Hagen Esty-Lennon, a former New Hampshire corrections officer — crashed his SUV into a closed bridge, and nearby residents called 911 to report that he was leaving the scene of the crash carrying a knife. When officers arrived, they told Esty-Lennon, who was bleeding from a self-inflicted wound, to drop his weapon and stop advancing toward them. When the man suddenly charged, officer Ryan Jarvis and officer Greg Collins each fired five shots, striking him six times. After reviewing the body camera footage, New Hampshire attorney general Stephen Foster ruled the encounter a justified homicide. 

Body cameras thus prove themselves to be indispensable. One officer who acted recklessly is facing murder charges, and two other officers who acted out of self-defense won’t be charged. When a police officer is equipped with a body camera, he or she will be more likely to think before pulling the trigger, knowing that his or her actions will be under public scrutiny.

However, body cameras only scratch the surface of what it takes for police departments to become fully accountable to the communities they’re meant to serve. Local governments must now act to establish civilian review boards independent of any police department, with the authority to take action against officers who break the law, appoint special prosecutors with no ties to local police departments to investigate shootings by officers and demilitarize police departments that have become excessively armed, poorly trained paramilitary forces.

The demilitarization of local police departments should be as high of a priority as body cameras.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that the state’s attorney general would be serve as the independent prosecutor to investigate each  shooting by an officer. This is a welcome step forward in a state known for having the nation’s most-sued police department and a largely ineffective civilian review board that relies entirely on the cooperation of the NYPD’s internal affairs bureau.

By contrast, in Ferguson, Missouri, Saint Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch — who came from a family of police officers, usually ruled in favor of police officers, and outright said he would’ve been a police officer if not for a debilitating injury — acquitted Darren Wilson of all wrongdoing. An independent prosecutor is less likely to have a conflict of interest in a case involving a citizen killed by police, and will be more likely to base their decision solely on the merits.

Good models for citizen review boards include Miami and San Diego. Miami has a 13-member board that can launch independent investigations of police misconduct based on citizen complaints, with a budget to hire two investigators and an attorney full-time.  San Diego’s civilian review board has 11 members, and two investigators; it can investigate and make policy recommendations. However, each model falls short: Miami’s board can issue subpoenas, but can’t subpoena police officers. San Diego’s board still ultimately has no binding power, as the sheriff has the final say regarding the board’s recommendations. To its credit, the sheriff doesn’t often go against the board’s recommendations, according to the board’s executive director. Ideally, this kind of body should be able to conduct its own investigations of police misconduct, subpoena any public official or police officer in its jurisdiction, and have recommendations go around police departments entirely and straight to the city council for a vote. The police should have no say in whether or not a police officer is held accountable for his or her actions.

The demilitarization of local police departments should be as high of a priority as body cameras. Even as crime rates have gone down, police are arming themselves as if their cities were under attack by ISIL: a front-page graphic from the New York Times in August of 2014 revealed how small, obscure police departments have used existing federal programs to procure equipment meant for war zones. Stephens County, Oklahoma, has a Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter; Benton County, Arkansas, has a mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle; Collier County, Florida, has M-16 rifles.

Out west, Richmond, California, has proven to be a good example of a responsive police department that keeps its community safe by listening and de-escalating, rather than opening fire. In Richmond, which used to be one of America’s most violent cities, no citizens have been killed by police since 2007. That’s in part because police chief Chris Magnus began a specialized training program in 2006 to encourage officers to reduce their dependence on lethal force, and to use Tasers and pepper spray to subdue perpetrators.

Police in neighboring Oakland, on the other hand, killed 20 citizens and wounded 33 between 2008 and 2013. And even with no trigger-happy cops, the murder rate in Richmond has dropped significantly, due to a unique approach of providing needed resources to at-risk young men and women. While there were 47 homicides in 2009, there only 21 homicides in 2010, 26 in 2011, 18 in 2012, and 16 in 2013.

Police officers are responsible for protecting and serving communities, not maiming and killing civilians. We still have a lot of work to do, but equipping cops with body cameras to stop the reign of police terror across the U.S. is a start. Federal programs that allow surplus military equipment to go to local police departments should be repealed, and existing military equipment in the hands of local cops should be seized by local governments, melted down and used for scrap metal. 

C. Robert Gibson is the editor-in-chief of US Uncut, a new social-justice-oriented media company covering economic, racial and environmental news. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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