It would be a crime not to know more about body cameras

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Americans crave transparency and accountability, as they should. It is important to know what, in particular, our local, state and national officials are doing with our money. When it comes to policing, we want to ensure that police officers are not abusing their uniform, badgering people with batons, firing weapons indiscriminately or harassing innocent civilians. We also want them to patrol our streets, arrest criminals and keep the peace.

{mosads}Enter body cameras. They seem like such a quick fix. Strap a video camera to a police officer, and presto! Instant results. But what do we really know about the impact of body cameras on the officers carrying out their work, and those on the other end of the lens?

As it turns out, not enough. And nearly every large police department in America is planning to use cameras, according to a survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriff’s Association. Although only about 18 percent of current cameras are fully operational, most major agencies will have them up and running in the years ahead. Yet in a potential case of cart before the horse, the studies of impact, effectiveness and consequences of body cameras remain lacking.

George Mason University in Virginia has a Center for Evidence-Based Crime. Experts there will be conducting a four-part study of police body cameras. But in their initial review of the current literature, there is little in the way of serious study of the issue, with instead significant gaps in understanding uses and consequences. Of the little research that has been done, not much has been shared with the public.

In the meantime, homicides increased in the first months of 2016 in more than 24 American cities, according to FBI statistics. Violence was particularly bad in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and other urban centers. Although there is no determined cause factor yet identified for the uptick in violence, one explanation may be the chilling effect of police body cameras. (Other explanations could be increased drug use, gang violence, downturns in the economy, etc.)

Criminologists cannot yet tell us how the greater scrutiny of police, through collected footage, impacts the willingness of officers to intervene in a crime situation out of fear of the repercussions of viral videos. Without evidence to suggest officers are pulling back, we just don’t know whom or what to blame.

And that’s the point. In this quick-fix society, where every answer to every problem seems to be technology, let’s take a pause and ask serious questions about body cameras. Do they inhibit action? Is that a good thing? Are there safeguards to mitigate against one-sided videos being misinterpreted? How will the footage be used and what are the legal implications of unedited video? Are there privacy issues that must be resolved for the officer and citizens? What are the costs in real dollars to training and outfitting police with cameras? Which police?

We want safe cities, in real time. But that means asking hard questions and staying open to the real possibility that not every problem can be solved with more media. If nothing else, we need to know what we don’t know before turning on the cameras.

Sonenshine is a former undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She lectures at George Washington University.

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