Had Police Officer Darren Wilson been wearing a body camera during the fatal Aug. 9 encounter with Michael Brown, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, might not be burning.
His parents think so, and a video record might have satisfied many others that the grand jury empaneled to look into Brown’s death made the right call given the contradictory accounts of the incident they heard from 60 witnesses.
Study after study has concluded that body cameras not only provide critical evidence but, more importantly, deter bad behavior by those being recorded, and the officers recording them.
So an opinion released Monday by Attorney General Bob Ferguson was not only well-timed, it also gave Washington law enforcement more clarity on camera use, especially in situations when officers are asked to stop taping. Washington law requires both parties in private conversation to give their consent before they can be recorded, but Ferguson concluded that any encounter with an officer, whether in public or a private residence, is public as long as all know an officer is present.
However, conversations that do not directly involve an officer but are captured on tape may not be admissible in court.
Ferguson’s conclusions dovetail with a recent policy change by Spokane Police Department, which has 17 camera-equipped officers who are testing the devices and associated technology. Chief Frank Straub had initially decided against taping in private homes, but reconsidered.
The Legislature has some considering to do, too.
Sen. Andy Billig, who had posed the questions Ferguson addressed in his opinion, characterized the response as an outline to be filled in by state and local lawmakers. For example, given the justifiable sensitivity about personal privacy, the idea that someone can be taped in their own home against their will offend many.
But police responding to a domestic abuse complaint will be equally concerned about their own safety, and the recall of statements that one spouse or the other might deny or recant later.
The attorney general also concluded that policy regarding camera use is subject to collective bargaining agreements. Straub wants them on during all but the most problematic situations – when dealing with someone suffering a mental health crisis, for example – but there has already been one incident when a camera was not running.
Some encounters will be ugly, and all are subject to a public records search. Unfortunately, individuals willing to exploit the availability of the tapes for potential commercial use are already lining up.
Straub, the Police Guild, city officials and the public have some work to do before all members of the force put cameras on next year.
Spokane learned the value of tapes thanks to a convenience store camera that in 2006 captured the conduct of Officer Karl Thompson when confronting Otto Zehm. Officers and deputies will be better off when, not if, they have what Shakespeare called “the ocular proof” of their accounts.