The national news has recently shown us many examples of people killed by police who probably should not have been killed. The Black Lives Matter movement has captured the national attention. What should we do?
A few years ago, the city of Rialto, California — about the same population as Hillsboro — participated in a lengthy randomized controlled field experiment to measure the effect of officers wearing visible video cameras and recording all of their encounters with the public.
The results were stunning and dramatic. The number of complaints filed against officers fell over 80%, and the number of use-of-force incidents fell about 60%. Everyone benefited: the police were more professional with the public, and the public was more respectful of the police. And when conflicts still occur, there is an objective witness — the video recording — to overcome the he-said / she-said nature of those conflicts.
There are surely privacy issues around body camera footage, and that footage often depicts people on literally the worst days of their lives. I do not believe that all footage should be a public record, but I would demand that the footage be available to the people recorded in it, who should be free to release it to the public if they choose. And I believe there should be a presumption against the police if the footage is lost or missing.
Having footage will make it much faster and easier to resolve complaints against police, especially frivolous ones. And as we know from Rialto's experience, the number of complaints against officers is likely to plummet, from better behavior on both sides.
Recordings of encounters could also help police departments achieve their internal objectives. For example, the Portland police department recently settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding a pattern of excessive force against people with mental illness. Footage from police encounters would help to establish whether the goals of that settlement are, or are not, being met. Footage could also be used for officer training, providing many examples of real-life encounters that can be studied and learned from.