In the midst of a string of recent police shootings, the Dallas Police Association, the city's largest police union, has called for all officers to be outfitted with body cameras that record the officers' every move. And the union's receiving support from a group not generally considered an ally: the activist group Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, which has been critical of police misconduct.
At a town hall meeting last Monday, Chief David Brown said the department has 90 such cameras already and is hoping to get the funding for 200 more in the next city budget. But that's not enough, say DPA President Ron Pinkston and DCOC spokesman Walter Higgins.
"One quick win we think that could happen is they could go ahead and fully fund getting body cameras for all patrol officers," says Higgins, whose group wants, among other things, the Department of Justice to open an investigation into what they call the DPD's "pattern and practice of police misconduct and excessive force." They've also picketed at District Attorney's Craig Watkins' house over too few indictments of officers involved in shootings.
"(Body-worn cameras have) reduced the number of complaints against officers," Higgins says, "but it's also reduced the number of incidents that officers have had because for some reason when people know they're on camera they do certain things. It protects both people."
Studies from across the country back that up. According to one from 2010 by a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, "Officers reported that recording their actions increased professionalism and performance in the sense that if forced them to give more attention to following agency protocols in their dealings with citizens and suspects; citizens supported the use of the cameras as a way to change police behavior and to hold officers accountable."
In a study conducted by the Police Foundation, which takes a scientific approach to policing, from February 2013 to February 2014, 54 of 115 officers who patrolled the 100,000-person town of Rialto, California, were equipped with body cameras. The study says that use of force -- which meant here when an officer used pepper spray, a baton or a gun -- was infrequent by Rialto officers, but the officers who wore body cams used such force half as many times as officers who did not have cameras. Complaints against police also dropped compared with the year before the study.
Researchers reviewed the body cam videos. They found that when officers used force, the suspect had made the first move, physically threatening the officer. According to the study, there were several incidents when officers without cameras were the initiators.
Along with monitoring police behavior, the cameras could help defuse potentially tense situations. The Phoenix Police Department received body-worn cameras through a research grant for smart policing. In a video interview with an Arizona State University professor, a precinct commander says he hopes the cameras have a "civilizing effect on those that we serve" and that they protect officers from "baseless allegations."
In the same video, another ASU professor says cameras would negatively affect policing. "There's been some concern," the professor says, "that it reduces police productivity because they're less interested in making stops and turning on their cameras."
Whatever the downsides, if there are any, the DPA and the DCOC agree that body-worn cameras would help the investigations of police shootings. When asked whether the DPA had calculated how much the cameras would cost, Pinkston says it had not but that the city could find the money: "What's the public's trust worth?"
Higgins says the DCOC is working with several groups and hopes to pressure the city into funding the cameras.
"It's so needed here in Dallas," he says.
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