A chance for safer local policing

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

Recent policing changes involving two of high-profile local departments — Miami-Dade and Miami Beach — could help further transform law enforcement in the county. If properly implemented, they will be beneficial to all residents. After all, these two police departments have had serious issues in the past with how some of their officers use — and misuse — the power of the badge.

Thanks to a matching $1 million federal grant from the Department of Justice announced last week, the number of Miami-Dade police officers who will initially wear body cameras will jump from 500 to as many as 1,000.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez already had earmarked $1 million in his just-approved 2015-2016 budget to purchase 500 police “body cams.”

Now, with the matching DOJ grant, the county will be able to double the number. The cameras will capture footage that will go far in protecting residents, and the officers, too. Wise move by Miami-Dade.

In the near future, many more exchanges, arrests and altercations involving Miami-Dade officers — our largest department — will be captured on video. Miami and Miami Beach officers already have some officers testing the cameras.

The grant is part of the DOJ’s Body-Worn Camera Pilot Implementation Program, a national initiative to equip police officers with cameras and study their use. Obviously, the federal government agrees cameras are the inevitable evolution of policing. The idea is to build transparency between law enforcement and the communities they serve. That needs to happen.

While the majority of police officers conduct themselves professionally, there is a widespread sentiment, grounded in reality, unfortunately, in some minority communities that many police officers abuse their position of authority. Being “on camera” will, it is hoped, curtail such behavior.

Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson said in a statement, the grant “brings us one step closer to providing this important technology to our officers and the community we serve.” True, though the local police unions, no surprise, are not convinced.

The cameras will be invaluable. When controversy arises, the department will be able to quickly answer critical questions: What prompted the police stop? What sparked the confrontation? Who fired first?

Given often conflicting narratives, visual records can provide clarity.

There’s a flip side: The use of cams, worn on a police officer’s chest or integrated into eyeglasses and safety goggles, can clearly exonerate officers unjustly accused of wrongdoing by citizens.

The power of the police cams was recently showcased with the DUI arrest of Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose ‘Pepe’ Diaz in Key West. The entire exchange between the motorcycle-riding commissioner and officers was recorded by the deputies’ body and cruiser cams. An embarrassing scenario for the commissioner, but visible to his constituents.

As important is that subsequent public access to police-cam video not be curtailed.

The second encouraging policing announcement came from the Miami Beach Police Department. Chief Dan Oates announced last week that his officers are getting new, less-powerful Tasers and he will change the way police deploy them at unruly suspects — not aiming at the chest. The decision comes two years after the Taser death of 18-year-old Israel Hernandez-Llach.

Chief Oates got it right. Even though his department was cleared in Mr. Hernandez-Llach’s death, he knew a change, for the public’s safety, was in order. That’s leadership.