Body Cams Work, if They’re Used Right

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New York City police officers don body cameras in the department’s 34th Precinct in April, part of a pilot program that is scheduled to include 1,200 officers in 20 precincts by the end of the year.

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Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The police officer who shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards last month in Balch Springs, Tex., was charged with murder on Friday after the Police Department determined from body-camera images and other information that deadly force had been unwarranted. But like most jurisdictions, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office — which is investigating this case — has no written body-cam policy and has made no decisions about making the footage public.

Many communities adopted body cams in the wake of the public outcry over the police killings of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and others. The hope was that the cameras would bring transparency to the policing process, allowing the public to see how officers do their jobs. Misconduct could be recorded, and the devices could also provide evidence to exonerate officers who are falsely accused of misconduct.

State legislators, however, have largely failed to specify how body cams are to be used — when they should be turned on or off, for example — and when their contents should be turned over to the public. This has left the matter in the hands of local police departments, which are inclined toward secrecy and could end up withholding video information from the public or restricting the times when cameras are to be used. Beyond that, privacy experts have cautioned that police departments could use the cameras to intensify surveillance of the public, particularly minority communities.

New York City has just begun a closely watched body-cam pilot program that could change the way departments across the country approach this issue….

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