The New York Times recently reported on the success that one California community is having with police officers wearing audio recorders and video cameras on duty.
In the first year after cameras were introduced in the Southern California community of Rialto, the number of complaints filed against officers dropped by 88 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, the use of force by officers dropped by 60 percent as well.
"When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better," Rialto Police Chief William Farrar told the Times. "And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better."
But not all public safety officers are behaving themselves when it comes to how footage is used.
Cameras have become standard equipment on the dashboards of police and fire vehicles in many communities across the nation. But when video from a helmet-mounted camera showed San Francisco firefighters responding to an emergency in July, the fire chief quickly made clear that such cameras are not allowed at fire scenes.
Why? Because the video included footage of a rescue truck running over and killing one of the victims while responding to the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 on July 6.
The death of 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan of China, coming at the hands of those who are trained to save lives, was an unspeakable tragedy. But the fire chief's hamhanded response only made this more of a debacle.
Chief Joanne Hayes-White's response rightly created a firestorm of controversy as she gave the clear impression that the city was more interested in protecting firefighters than in getting at the truth of what happened<NO1> in the death of this teenager<NO>. Want to use cameras as a training tool or as a measure of security, that's fine. But as soon as they cast public safety officers in a bad light, the show's over.
Hayes-White continues to stand by the ban — which she contends was actually adopted in 2009 — although she concedes that the policy is under review.
Either way, the chief missed an opportunity to put the emphasis where it belongs — on how the film will help the department serve the public better. First, she should have made clear that the film by Battalion Chief Mark Johnson, no matter how chilling, would help the department review what went wrong in the response to this crash and to ensure something like this never happens again. And, second, that the film would serve as a critical tool for the National Transportation Safety Board, San Francisco International Airport, Asiana Airlines and multiple other entities that need to learn from this experience as well.
We have our own reservations about cameras becoming a regular part of uniforms and public safety apparatus. But if cameras are here to stay, they need to be used in the name of education, public safety and transparency, with footage being available to exonerate as well as implicate members of the public and public safety officers alike.
Truth is not a liability. Those who argue otherwise are the ones who need to be powered down.