Body cameras will not boost police-community relations: report

Putting more body cameras on police will not improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they oversee, according to a presidential task force report.

Instead, more minority hiring, better training, improved civilian oversight and the decoupling of immigration enforcement with local policing, will help to mend tensions between minorities and local law enforcement, said a draft report released Monday by a panel created by President Obama.

The president created his Task Force on 21st Century Policing last year in response to riots over a fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. The report’s recommendations will likely form the core of the White House’s response to those events.

“The point is that this report is going to contain a series of very specific, concrete, common-sense efforts for us to build trust,” Mr. Obama said in remarks after meeting with the task force Monday.

“It will be good for police and it will be good for the communities involved. And as a consequence, it will be good for the country. Everybody wants our streets safe and everybody wants to make sure that laws are applied fairly and equitably,” he said.

Senior Obama administration officials said in December that the president planned to ask Congress to authorize $75 million over the next three years to provide up to 50,000 body cameras for local police departments, but the task force’s report on Monday merely encouraged the federal government to increase training and delivery of technology tools for police, and tiptoed around the use of body cameras specifically, citing privacy concerns.

“Although body-worn cameras can offer many benefits, they also raise serious questions about how technology is changing the relationship between police and the community,” the report reads. “Body-worn cameras not only create concerns about the public’s privacy rights but also can affect how officers relate to people in the community, the community’s perception of the police, and expectations about how police agencies should share information with the public.”

After meeting with the task force Monday to discuss the recommendations, Mr. Obama said that the use of body cameras was not a cure-all for police-community relations.

“There is a role for technology to play in building additional trust and accountability, but it’s not a panacea. It has to be embedded in a broader change in culture and a legal framework that ensures that people’s privacy is respected,” he said in remarks made after the meeting.

Richard Roberts, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO’s International Union of Police Associations said the union had not settled on a position on body cameras because local forces disagree on their benefits.

“The whole body camera thing is up in the air,” Mr. Roberts said, adding that the city police chief in Sarasota, Florida, — where his union is headquartered — is “all in favor of body cameras,” but the county sheriff, “has lots of concerns.”

In his testimony before the task force, Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, explained that body cameras can never register an incident the same way as an officer because cameras can’t see the way that human eyes see or register a threat as quickly as an officer.

The Institute backs body cameras, “but that support comes with a caveat,” Mr. Lewinski said in a statement. “Being unaware of, or ignoring, the limitations of body camera footage can have a profoundly damaging impact on the true goal of the use of that technology,” which is to “determine the truth.”

Matthew Feeney, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said that a national standard on body cameras would have to be very vague to encompass diverse police forces ranging from big-city departments like Los Angeles to a small-town 10-man force.

“The administration can set some sort of national standard, but I don’t think it will be enforceable,” Mr. Feeney said.

During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey denied that the task force, of which he was a co-chairman, intentionally dodged the issue of body cameras, arguing that the task force decided to take a broader stance on police technology due to the 90-day time limit.

“I think you have to be mindful of the time frame in which we were operating,” he said. “What we tried to do was take a broad look at technology, today we are looking at body cameras, tomorrow it will be something else.”

The 120-page report laid out dozens of other recommendations for improving police and community relations including conducting independent reviews of police shootings and using external and independent prosecutors.

The report also called for a “de-coupling” of immigration enforcement from local police.

Commissioner Ramsey said the recommendation for local police not to prosecute illegal immigrants pertains to minor crimes, “not your serious felonies.”

“It just breaks down relationships between police and communities” when police try to enforce immigration law, Commissioner Ramsey said.

The task force called for police departments to stop requiring officers to meet quotas for tickets, citations, arrests, or summonses which cities use to generate revenue.

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