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Staff editorial: Body cameras insufficient for holding police accountable

Protesters gather in Charlotte, North Carolina following the death of Keith Lamont Scott. (Courtesy of Flickr)
Protesters gather in Charlotte, North Carolina following the death of Keith Lamont Scott. (Courtesy of Flickr)

There was a sense of helplessness in the room as our staff gathered together to discuss this week’s topic: the recent shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. How many times are we going to sit around a table and discuss one of these crimes in outrage? And what can we do as journalists, aside from bringing attention to these crimes and lending our solidarity?

Like the shootings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and too many others, Scott’s death sparked city-wide demonstrations as protesters demanded the video from the responsible officer’s body camera be released to the public. The Charlotte Police Department refused to release any video evidence of Scott’s death until Sept. 24, four days after the shooting, when they distributed a video taken from the responsible officer’s body camera that appeared to have been recorded in the aftermath of the shooting. This does not lend any insight into the exact circumstances surrounding Scott’s death, and many of us on staff believe this fact exposes a critical flaw in police body cameras: officers can simply turn them off.

We feel it is irresponsible that what is supposed to be a mediating factor in holding police accountable is able to be controlled by those same officers. An editor discussed how, just last August, police body cameras failed to capture the shooting death of 18-year-old Paul O’Neal. When asked what went wrong, the Chicago Police Department simply said the officers responsible were unaccustomed to the new technology.

We believe a truly impartial solution would be a constantly streaming live video that police are unable to turn off. This way, there would be no gaps in recordings, no claims from police departments that video was lost or unable to be recovered. Additionally, it would resolve concerns about conflicts of interest for the police departments responsible for the distribution of evidence that could potentially incriminate their officers. In many states, body camera footage is public record to begin with. What is to be gained from holding back information the public has a right to by law?

Additionally, body cameras do not always deter police from abusing their power. One staff member gave a recent and very pertinent example of body camera footage that surfaced just last week on Sept. 22, depicting police in Hagerstown, Maryland manhandling and pepper spraying a 15-year-old girl. Behind each of these violent incidents is blatant racial profiling and police officers who respond to situations with deadly force due to improper training. We believe these are problems that cannot simply be solved by increased surveillance of police activities.

Many of us on staff feel that there are crucial flaws in the hiring and training of police, leading to unfit officers being dispatched onto the streets to deal with life-or-death situations they are not equipped to handle. We feel that, at the very least, police should be screened for psychological issues, as well as be required to complete extensive emergency response and implicit bias training. One staff member pointed out that periodic psychological evaluations, similar to what airline pilots are required to undergo, would ensure that officers remain fit to hold their jobs.

Even as we condemn this shooting, and all others like it, we can’t help but feel at a loss for what to do. If the culture behind these crimes does not change, we are sure it will not be long before we are sitting here again, discussing yet another horrific consequence of police brutality.