While a lot of the "news" about police on a national basis is predictably negative - cops shooting unarmed black men at traffic stops and beating up women - there's some positive news about law enforcement to share right here in Yavapai County. Last week some of the 105 patrol deputies began wearing body cameras.
A couple of weeks ago a local group of officers, defending and prosecuting attorneys and even a member of the public (me) approved a set of policies and procedures for the use of body cameras by the officers. The camera program began rolling out last week in most areas, though some officers in outlying areas, such as Bagdad, may not use them until Internet connections improve.
It's an important step forward to ensure that both the police and the public act appropriately during traffic stops and on calls. Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher sought the introduction of the cameras for several reasons, but the main incentive was to avoid lawsuits by the public and to take action if an officer steps out of line.
Since the data is uploaded to a third party, TASER International, and turning off the camera during an active investigation or call is forbidden, both police and citizens, who may be accused of things they didn't do, are protected by objective evidence. The footage is uploaded directly to TASER and cannot be edited in advance.
Ever since a black man named Rodney King was pulled out of a car in Los Angeles, beaten with nightsticks and kicked by two white police officers while several other officers watched - as an onlooker videotaped the event - public opinion toward police has been influenced by the ease of access to technology. Now that cameras on phones can record video without being noticed, the spread of such technology is ubiquitous and the accounts of police abuses, mostly toward minorities, are being recorded at a greater rate.
Police are constantly trained and retrained in dealing with often not-so-savory people, victims and innocent bystanders who are affected by accidental events. The body cameras that will be worn on their chests, aimed at whomever they are addressing, will ensure that an accurate version of events will be recorded.
While most police already use audio recordings, in a situation like the shootings, fighting and attacks on police at a Cottonwood Wal-Mart last March, a Dashcam recording helped to piece together the course of events in a chaotic situation. Sometimes what happened is not always cut and dried or easy to explain, and even officers may not see everything that the camera does in those situations. In a home setting, a body camera could be critical to explaining what happened.
Having the body camera program is a win-win-win situation for the police, citizens and even lawyers, who will no longer have to waste time figuring out what is true and what is not.
The policies that were adopted included many tested at other police departments that have been using the body cameras for extended periods and have input from such groups as the ACLU and lawyers who represent victims. Privacy will be maintained for victims through technology that blurs their faces or hides their locations, when necessary, as well as audio-only releases to the media, except during trial situations.
When I agreed to join the panel to discuss the technology, I was curious about its purpose and implementation, but after three meetings and reviewing a couple thousand pages of documentation explaining scenarios and legal considerations, I think Sheriff Mascher made the right choice and a thorough effort to achieve an optimal program.
Even during the test phase of having the cameras, police found that once they told people they were being recorded, they behaved better and one person who was going to claim they were abused backed away from that claim after learning of the recording. Police, too, who may be tempted to be rough in an emotionally charged situation will think twice about their actions, knowing that they're being recorded. An edited version of a house call by police and other incidents were shown to the panel, giving insight into the value of the recordings.
Hopefully, the body cameras will make Yavapai County a safer place for police and the accused in the future. While Prescott police do not have body cameras, my wish is that in spite of the considerable cost - much of it related to storing the footage - all of the towns in the area will invest in the program for their police departments.
The safety they can provide to the reputations of officers and the physical well being of the public are well worth it.
Toni Denis is a freelance journalist, a Prescott resident and chairwoman of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area.