Editorials

Cameras on cops

Police officer wears a shoulder-mounted camera.
Police officer wears a shoulder-mounted camera. AP

So now we’ll know what really happened, and fast.

Deadly exchanges between police and citizens too often remain a mystery to a community that wants answers immediately — not weeks or months later. That’s going to change in Miami Beach, which has endured its share of controversy when it comes to policing.

In a 6-1 vote Wednesday, the City Commission approved body cameras for its police officers. This is a major step toward lifting the veil that can shroud police work, well worth the $3 million the initiative will cost over five years. The move comes too late for the family of 18-year-old Israel Hernandez, which wants a full accounting of why he died after being Tasered by police in 2013. A video record of that incident would have cleared up many questions.

The cameras will be invaluable in violent confrontations. The police department will be able to quickly answer critical questions: What prompted the police stop? What sparked the confrontation? Who fired first? Given the often conflicting narratives, a visual record can provide clarity. Think Ray Rice.

While the majority of police officers conduct themselves professionally, there is a widespread sentiment in many minority communities that police officers abuse their position of authority — and it’s imperative that police chiefs address the perception and the reality of rogue officers. Being on a “candid camera” will, hopefully, curtail such behavior.

At best, use of personal video cameras, worn on a police officer’s chest or integrated into eyeglasses and safety goggles, can clearly exonerate, or implicate, officers who face these accusations.

Why is that important? Just look to Ferguson, Missouri. The ability to make a quicker determination as to how a police stop became fatal for unarmed teenager Michael Brown might have prevented the civil disturbances that followed. Body cameras can also help dismiss frivolous lawsuits, curtail unfounded accusations of police brutality or bolster such charges. Closer to home, cameras mounted at a Miami Gardens convenience store revealed officers’ unprofessional and harassing behavior toward residents.

The use of body cameras is meeting with resistance from local police unions, which say they will be a distraction. From what? Getting closer to the truth? In the small city of Rialto, California, where officers were outfitted with cameras, public complaints against officers fell 88 percent, and officers’ use of force dropped 60 percent.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is right to want to outfit officers with cameras, too, and the commission should back him up and make it happen.

Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates says the cameras are the way of the future — the inevitable evolution of policing. He’s right. Cameras are everywhere; why not on those charged with our safety?

Body cameras for law enforcement are still new enough that no national standards exist. Should footage be released to the public right away? Is the video admissible in court? When should the cameras be turned off? And who will preserve, review and safeguard video against tampering or loss? Best practices and rules and regulations need to be determined. Chief Oates could be a leader on that front.

The knowledge that police interactions are being recorded keeps everyone honest. Transparency and clarity come with a price tag, yes. But taxpayers should not be averse to footing this particular bill. It’s money well spent.

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