EDITORIAL: Federal use of body cameras should raise public confidence

The Justice Department recently announced that federal law enforcement officials are now required to wear body cameras when executing search warrants and making preplanned arrests. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco announced the new policy last month in a memo that cited the importance of “transparency and accountability,” and the desire to develop greater trust between policing agencies and the public.

We welcome the announcement, and hope the new policy eventually extends to all federal agencies and all interactions with the public.

Federal adoption of body cameras is the latest, and perhaps most significant, adoption of a trend that has grown for years and gained strength after Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was fatally shot by police in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. Witness testimony contradicted the officer’s account, and led to widespread protests of police officers’ use of deadly force. Afterward police departments across the country, including several in the Rio Grande Valley, pledged to use body cameras, be more accountable, and enact other reforms. Several state legislatures enacted laws requiring their use. By 2016, half the nation’s police departments reportedly were using body cameras.

Until last month’s announcement, however, federal agencies resisted adopting body cameras, saying they could compromise sensitive investigations. The experience of other state and local departments, however, suggests the opposite might be the case.

Surveys of law officers shows that the cameras aren’t considered bothersome and haven’t changed overall behavior.

At the same time, despite recent high-profile incidents such as the death of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis, actual reports of officers’ use of force has declined with the use of cameras, as well as defendants’ complaints of officer abuse. It’s impossible to know how much of the change results from greater officer restraint as opposed to false claims made by suspects who are trying to influence perceptions by judges, juries and the public; the answer, most likely, is both.

In addition, the costs of cameras that concerned some departments might be offset by reduced litigation expenses that result from fewer allegations of force.

Similar results could occur at the federal level if the cameras are employed for all situations. They might have helped in previous cases, helping to determine if Border Patrol officers really felt threatened by children throwing rocks across the Rio Grande, or if a young goatherd in El Paso was really firing his rifle at dirt clods, as his family claimed.

To be sure, cameras aren’t perfect, and their use has to be refined. All too often officials have said a camera malfunctioned or the officers forgot to turn them on in key cases. Agencies also have resisted releasing body cam images in some cases but not others.

Cameras’ use also should be considered in detention centers, where many detainees have alleged poor conditions and abuses. Greater use of body cameras could lead to improvements and a possible reduction of false allegations.

Body cameras already have proven their value, and that proof should only grow with increased use at the federal level.