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OUR OPINION: Body cams loom in police officers' future

In Tuesday's New York Times, a Columbia University Law School professor who taught for 11 years at the University of Chicago called on the mayor of Chicago to resign.

Our Opinion
Our Opinion

In Tuesday’s New York Times, a Columbia University Law School professor who taught for 11 years at the University of Chicago called on the mayor of Chicago to resign.

Mayors and police chiefs across Minnesota and North Dakota should take note. Because there’s a fair chance that the Chicago mayor will resign. He already has fired his police superintendent; there’s even a chance that the two of them and others will be prosecuted.

And if such things happen, then the reason will center on a topic that’s as current in the Red River Valley as it is in the Windy City: police videos.

Chicago’s tale tells the upper Midwest that the videos are crucial to law enforcement, and that this includes footage from not only dashboard cameras but also body cams, too.

There are problems with body cams, notably their cost -- a big hurdle, especially for rural police departments -- and their privacy concerns. Does the body-cam footage from every incident fall under open-records laws? Who decides?

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But those problems have solutions, and public officials in cities and towns alike should work on implementing those solutions. Because body cameras should be and -- sooner or later -- will be incorporated into routine police work.

It’s inevitable. And the sooner local officials -- some of whom, in a story on the front page of Sunday’s Herald, expressed skepticism about body cameras’ usefulness -- understand that inevitability, they sooner they can make the technology work.

“There’s been a cover-up in Chicago,” Columbia Law Professor Bernard Harcourt wrote in his column in Tuesday’s New York Times.

“The city’s leaders have now brought charges against a police officer, Jason Van Dyke, for the first-degree murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. But for more than a year, Chicago officials delayed the criminal process, and might well have postponed prosecution indefinitely, had it not been for a state court forcing their hand.

“They prevented the public from viewing crucial incriminating evidence - first one police car’s dashboard camera video; now, we learn, five such videos in total. And these senior officials turned a blind eye to the fact that 86 minutes of other video surveillance footage of the crime scene was unaccountably missing.”

If you’ve watched the many videos of police shootings that have surfaced in recent years, you’ll see right away that the dash-cam video Harcourt refers to is different. In the other cases, the officer typically had reasonable cause to fire his or her weapon; and so the investigating committees find, time and time again.

But that’s not the case with the video showing the shooting of McDonald. After watching it, you’ll understand why the officer is being charged with murder.

Of course, a charge is not a conviction. But it’s still a charge -- and as Harcourt writes, the key reason the charge has been brought is the video, a video that Chicago officials went to court to keep from being released.

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“In the process, Chicago’s leaders allowed a first-degree murder suspect, now incarcerated pending bail, to remain free for over a year on the city’s payroll,” Harcourt writes.

“These officials no longer have the public’s confidence. They should resign.”

Such is the power of law enforcement video. It exonerates police officers much more often than it incriminates them. But in any case, it’s an invaluable tool for bringing clarity to the normally foggy world of police/public interaction.

In Sunday’s Herald story, a few police chiefs from small-town departments said they didn’t see a need for the technology. As one put it, "we don't really have a lot of high profile crime here."

But of course, that’s true only until it isn’t. And by now, all Americans have heard small-town residents respond to crime shocks by saying, “We never thought it would happen here.”

Better for residents and police alike to be prepared, which means assuming that sooner or later, the worst will happen here.

And when that day comes, the officers should be ready with the modern tools of their trade, which include weapons, restraints, communication devices -- and body cams.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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Related Topics: POLICE
Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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