Bob Franken: Body cameras for all

  • By Bob Franken
  • Saturday, December 6, 2014 4:42pm
  • Opinion

We may as well go all the way. I’ll let you ponder that double-entendre for just a moment before explaining that this is about body cameras, not whatever it was you were thinking about. Specifically, I’m referring to the one really big idea that came out of that White House meeting over widespread routine law-enforcement mistreatment of minorities in this country and, in a larger sense, about frequent police excess in general, where cops operate as if their authority overrides our basic rights.

President Barack Obama wants to ratchet up their accountability and document any bullying conduct by financing the purchase of a body cam for each and every officer of the law. Obviously the intention is a good one, but there are some reservations. Largely they center around civil liberties and concerns about further invasions of privacy and misuse of the video record.

Let’s face it, that battle is over. We are pretty much always under surveillance. Besides, the hard-charging cop is probably going to turn off the camera when he or she doesn’t want to be taped in much the same way some police officers will cover up their badges and ID bars. So here’s a better idea:

Let’s make body cameras available for all of us — perhaps make them mandatory, at least when we leave the house. Yes, it will mean that our entire lives can be monitored, but they already are. So why not have our own individual video record of our interactions with the world?

That way, in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown’s death could have been recorded, meaning we wouldn’t have to take Officer Darren Wilson’s word for how the tragedy occurred, even if he wasn’t doing all that he could to document his behavior. We already know that he wasn’t carrying his Taser, which might have been an alternative but nonlethal way to protect himself, because he said it was just too gosh darned uncomfortable to schlep around.

Let’s face it, young Brown apparently deserved to be arrested. But he didn’t deserve to die, not when a heavily armed policeman had alternatives to killing him. That’s what all the demonstrations are about. That’s why some of the St. Louis Rams players came out with their hands up before their game. It really doesn’t matter how accurate it is; the symbolism has become the expression of protest against police brutality.

Of course, law-enforcement hard-liners hate the idea that any of their tactics can be questioned, which explains why the St. Louis Police Officers Association went ballistic and demanded that the players be disciplined and forced to apologize. For once, the NFL got it right by simply saying no.

As for the argument that it’s the cops who provide the protection and control services that allow the games to happen, that is no justification for some in their ranks to exceed their authority. The vast majority of them do not, but there is still too big a minority who cross the line into surly brutality.

Particularly with all the military armaments we provide the local forces, there is too little effort spent on persuasion and community relations. In those jurisdictions where enlightened training programs and neighborhood outreach have been initiated, there is a strong record of success.

That definitely was not the case in Ferguson; it is certainly not the case in New York, where another grand jury has decided against indicting a police officer, even though he used a banned chokehold to kill Eric Garner, who had the audacity to question the tactics of the policemen who surrounded him for the most trivial of offenses.

Hopefully, White House promises to address these outrages, as well as the ones in Missouri, will go beyond platitudes. In the meantime, let’s make sure we’re all wearing body cameras. That makes it harder for cops to illegally stop us from taking video of them. Unfortunately, we sometimes need protection from those who are supposed to protect us.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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