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Our View: Body cameras can protect citizens, police alike




It is not quite as sinister as George Orwell's "1984," but we now live in a world where the expectation of privacy can hardly be taken for granted. From the National Security Agency's controversial data mining operations to surveillance cameras to the ubiquitous cell phone cameras, we are generally being watched. 


Unlike Orwell's dark vision of the technology-controlled world to come, even those most concerned with protecting personal privacy will admit that there are instances were the technology we see today has served useful purposes. It was surveillance cameras that helped identify the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013. It was video captured on cell phones that told the story of the Arab Spring in defiance of the governments who sought to suppress that information. 


In recent weeks, we have seen an example of another kind: We wonder if the presence of a camera might have prevented the death -- or, perhaps, the public reaction to the death -- of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three weeks ago. 


This fall, the Columbus Police Department will take a significant step in preventing the sort of confusion that currently reigns in Ferguson by equipping its officers with cameras to be worn on their uniforms. The CPD has purchased 50 "Axon" body cameras with a $14,000 federal grant. Plans for the cameras were in place before the Ferguson event. 


This is one of those rare events where it seems there are no detractors. Law-and-order proponents favor the cameras because it will protect officers from claims of abuse while those inclined to view police with suspicion say the cameras will hold police accountable for their actions. 


There is some evidence that both claims are valid. 


In 2012, the city of Rialto, California, equipped its officers with these cameras. The result seems to support both views: After the cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plummeted 88 percent from the previous year while officers' use of force plunged by 60 percent. 


The benefits to the public and our public servants in law enforcement are obvious. 


There should be a note of caution, however. Like any technology, the use of these cameras relies on using them properly. When do officers turn on the camera? In what instances should they be turned off? Will the footage be used in court in such a way that fails to take into account the full context of the incident? In other words, will cameras be turned on only when it is beneficial to law enforcement? 


These are all legitimate questions. If we have learned nothing else about technology, we have learned that it has the potential for abuse. 


Clearly, though, when used properly under clearly-defined guidelines, body cameras can be a useful tool in discerning fact from fiction.



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