Dem lawmaker pushes Holder to fund body cameras for cops

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Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is calling on the Justice Department to fund body cameras for local police following the shooting of teenager Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Schiff on Wednesday wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to initiate a "dedicated federal grant program" for cops to purchase the cameras. He said the initiative would increase police accountability and restore trust in communities.

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“As the investigation into the death of Michael Brown illustrates, the circumstances of an officer-involved shooting can arouse the strongest passions in a community and breed an atmosphere of profound distrust,” Schiff said in a statement.

“Having a video record of events not only deters the use of excessive force, but it also helps dispute or demonstrate claims of police brutality — in either case it improves community confidence in a just result."

Schiff said that he is circulating a letter among his colleagues to gather support for the initiative.

Many police departments have obtained new technology, including body cameras, through existing Department of Justice (DOJ) grants. Schiff said the DOJ could redirect existing funds or work with lawmakers to secure new appropriations.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has also called for police body cameras, but says the federal government should first require their use.

"It seems to me that before we give federal funds to police departments, we ought to mandate that they have body cams," McCaskill said Tuesday.

McCaskill said she thought body cameras "would go a long way" to help determine what happened in cases such as Brown's.

"It would be a great legacy over this tragedy that's occurred in Ferguson," she said.

In his letter to Holder, shared with The Hill, Schiff also said that funding body cameras would help improve police best practices.

The letter cites, in part, a 2012 case study where the Rialto, Calif., police department saw an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers, from 24 to 3 in a single year, after implementing body cameras.

Use-of-force incidents also fell, by nearly 60 percent from 61 to 25, even as the police interacted more with the public, according to the study.

"The evidence from early adopters is highly promising, and body-worn cameras have garnered support from police chiefs, rank and file officers, community organizations, and civil rights advocates," Schiff wrote to Holder.

petition posted on the White House website asking that police be required to use body cameras has amassed nearly 150,000 signatures, well above the 100,000 threshold for an official response. 

Civil rights groups have also called for police to use body cameras.

Body-worn video can provide an "objective account of interactions between police and citizens," the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a letter to Holder last week asking the Justice Department to encourage the use of body cameras.

An American Civil Liberties Union paper published last year weighed the privacy concerns of body cameras, but ultimately said they "have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse."

Ferguson city leaders said last week that they would push for a slew of initiatives following the shooting death of Brown, including efforts to "raise funds and secure dash and vest cams for our patrol cars."

Ferguson Police Department Chief Thomas Jackson said officials plan to implement body and dashboard cameras soon, according to The Wall Street Journal.