Recent shootings involving members of the Vancouver Police Department should reinvigorate discussions about the use of body cameras by law enforcement.
Vancouver police are not equipped with body cameras, which have been the subject of a national discourse in recent years. And while cameras often can answer lingering questions following the use of deadly force, they should not be viewed as a panacea for protecting the public from excessive force or officers from unfounded accusations.
On Feb. 19, 16-year-old Clayton Joseph was shot to death by a Vancouver officer outside an apartment complex on Southeast Ellsworth Road. Police accounts say Joseph brandished a knife when approached by officers and refused commands to drop the weapon. On Feb. 28, police responded to reports of a man pointing a gun at motorists and pedestrians near downtown; 29-year-old Michael Pierce was shot and killed. And Thursday, a shooting resulted in a death in Hazel Dell.
Facts known at this point do not suggest that the actions of officers were unwarranted. But as investigations continue, those investigations must include questions about whether or not body cameras would help sort out the facts.
In a best-case scenario, a body camera can clearly depict the situation that led to an officer-involved shooting. In the case of Joseph, for example, it could show how close he was when approached by officers, whether he made threatening gestures, how clearly officers demanded that he drop the knife, and his demeanor at the time.
But best-case scenarios rarely prevail in tense police interactions with the public. Rachel Levinson-Waldman, an expert on body cameras for the Brennan Center for Justice, told Vox.com in 2017: “The video can be ambiguous. It’s hard to interpret sometimes. It’s shaky. Often, the body cameras aren’t turned on at the right time … so they may not capture all of a particular incident.”
There are other problems, as well. Following a spate of police shootings in recent years, police departments have been exploring and adopting the use of body cameras. Now, many of them, particularly small departments, are scaling back those plans. Part of the reason is the cost of storing footage captured by cameras; another part is the issue of privacy for people who interact with officers. According to a report from the University of Washington: “For instance, because body worn video is a public record, any member of the public could request nearly any police body camera captured event — including, but not limited to, police interviews and/or interactions with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault.”
In 2016, the Legislature convened a task force to consider the use of body cameras and establish statewide guidelines. Last March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation (Senate Bill 6408) spelling out privacy protections surrounding video from body cameras. It also should be noted that earlier this year, the governor signed into law necessary changes regarding the use of deadly force by police.
Legislation must provide protections for both the public and for officers. And evidence suggests that improved training is more effective than body cameras; avoiding a deadly situation is more important than deconstructing one after the fact. As Vox reports: “The studies that have been conducted suggest that body cameras’ effectiveness is heavily dependent on the policies and practices of the department they are being introduced in.”
That is probably a more important discussion than the one about body cameras.