Kansas City police should use body-mounted cameras

08/16/2014 10:00 AM

08/16/2014 5:35 PM

It would be irresponsible to claim that if the police officer in Ferguson, Mo., had had a body-mounted camera on him, he might not have fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown.

But it would be responsible to say that had the officer been wearing such a camera, we might know a whole lot more about what happened that tragic day.

Many police departments throughout the country have purchased such cameras, and now every officer on their force who is on patrol wears his camera, either on the vest or on a pocket, a badge or a helmet. Whichever way the officer is facing, the camera is shooting ahead, with a 130-degree wide angle lens.

This is in addition to dashboard cameras, which provide a different perspective.

Kansas City police officials would only say such cameras have been discussed, but they say they first want to see more research. The cost would be almost a million dollars to fit every patrolling officer with a body-mounted camera, and they say they must be “prudent.”

The cameras cost about $800 each.

It’s a shame because if there is a police department in metropolitan Kansas City that could really use those cameras, it would be Kansas City.

Imagine how useful the cameras would be in cases such as the Country Club Plaza, where racial profiling or police abuse is sometimes charged by citizens. A recording of what actually occurred could be very enlightening, both ways.

Either the claim may be false, or on the other hand, if there were racial profiling or abuse by an officer, that would all be captured on the recording. The protection runs both ways.

If officials at the downtown police headquarters would like a few testimonials, they need go no farther than Johnson County.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, for about a year, has been using body-mounted cameras for all officers on patrol, and the department is thinking of adding them to the guards at the detention centers. It will be starting a pilot project soon, to better evaluate the claims by some inmates that guards have been abusive.

Lenexa and Merriam police departments also use such cameras and have done so successfully for several years.

There may be others in the metropolitan area that are using body-mounted cameras, but we can name these three as prime examples.

They have been very useful, according to police officials for several reasons.

One, they protect officers from false allegations. All three departments pointed out that in several instances, their officers were exonerated when a citizen complained about mistreatment or rudeness.

Two, which fits with No. 1, citizen complaints decrease when they know they are being taped.

And three, the cameras are very useful in capturing information that provide evidence for use in court.

In other words, the cameras, so far, have worked in favor of the police departments using them.

But there is no reason the cameras would not be helpful for citizens as well.

Whatever the officer’s explanation of what happened in Ferguson, it is only one side of the story. A recording of events might reveal new, critical facts. Assuming the camera was turned on and running, we would know exactly what led to the shooting.

The suburban sheriff and municipal police departments do not have to deal nearly as much with violence, domestic abuse and racial issues as does Kansas City.

If it costs even a million dollars, it would be well worth the investment for Kansas City officers on patrol to have the cameras running.

I have a hunch that in the next few years, every law enforcement agency that deals with the public on patrol will have body-mounted cameras, just like nearly all do today on the dashboards of their police cars.

We might as well get started sooner rather than later.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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