Hilker: Wait for body camera fallout

Every city from Walla Walla to Opa-locka is planning to spend big bucks to buy little body cameras to record the work of its police persons.

The tab in Denver will be $6 million-plus. And no one has seemingly considered the cost of storing, categorizing and retrieving the pictures, if that becomes necessary.

All this is part of a sudden desire to “police the police.” Instead of spending to put more cops on the street, we now will find money to watch the ones we already have.

But wait. Opposition is now forming to this idea.

Who could be opposed? Police unions? The police chiefs’ association?

Nope. Strangely, push-back is coming from lawyers and civil right organizations. According to a piece in the Harvard Law Review (which I read nightly before going to sleep), we might just have some “unintended negative consequences” here.

Even the ACLU, an advocate of cameras, is having second thoughts. It feels that low-income minority individuals would be more “disadvantaged” by camera footage because there is a higher police presence in their neighborhoods

One of my relatives is a cop in a large city department in another state. He encounters people daily in areas with high crime rates.

He told me that on balance, he favors use of the body cameras.

“Maybe they will make the people I meet be more careful on how they behave,” he said.

So it is not just about “policing the police.”

True, the cameras might influence how some cops conduct themselves. But this is far from a one-sided issue. And could it be that some attorneys don’t want too much visual evidence since it could be key in deciding a case? Or maybe they don’t want to see business reduced.

According to The Washington Post, when police in Rialto, Calif., started wearing cameras, citizen complaints against police were reduced from 28 in one year to three the following year. Officers in Laurel, Md., were skeptical at first when the department started issuing the devices, but now all 70 officers have requested them.

There are some legitimate legal and civil rights issues that no one previously thought of. For instance:

• Do cops have to turn their cameras off if they go into a private home to quell a marital fight? Would neighbors have the right to access footage if it exists?

• Some states require that taping of “private conversations” requires consent of both parties. Are police contacts so defined?

• Most states now have laws that allow police to withhold records involved in investigations.

And, if police are required to wear cameras, who else should as well? Doctors, school teachers, holders of public office? Whoops!

Experts believe that before all of this gets sorted out, a lot of judges will make a lot of decisions in a lot of cases.

Therefore, let this happen before rushing to spend a lot of taxpayer money.

Let us be mindful of our experience with traffic cameras at intersections. A lot of money went into those, but now many cities and states are ruling them out.

We don’t need another mistake like that.

Dick Hilker (dhilker529@ aol.com) is a retired suburban Denver newspaper editor and columnist.

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