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Equipping police with body cameras will protect good officers, weed out bad ones

Now the City of Tonawanda Police Department is getting on board. It has equipped its officers with body cameras as a way to protect good officers from false accusations, protect the public from bad officers and, in doing both, maintain the support of the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.

This is the way of the future. The technology is affordable, sometimes with the financial help of higher levels of government, and if it’s not foolproof, it is still bound to make a huge difference for the better.

Consider: If Officer Michael T. Slager of the North Charleston, S.C., Police Department had been wearing a body camera, would he have cold-bloodedly shot Walter L. Scott, who was fleeing from him? Yes, a bad cop is a bad cop, whether or not he is wearing a body camera, and Slager might well have disgraced himself in some other way. But Scott would almost certainly still be alive had Slager known his homicidal instinct was being recorded – as it was, but by an unseen onlooker.

And it works the other way, too. When Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot Michael Brown, an African-American, in Ferguson, Mo., violence erupted in the largely minority city. There was a structural reason for that, as a subsequent investigation by the U.S. Justice Department documented. But it turned out that Wilson had reason to fear for his life, and that some witnesses lied to make the officer appear to be guilty of a crime. A body camera might have made the difference between calm and the chaos that ensued.

What could be the reason for police departments to resist this obviously useful technology? There are only two: money or fear. In smaller departments, the cost of purchasing the equipment and storing the video might be a big reach. Those departments should look for help in meeting that worthwhile expense. But otherwise, what conclusions can be drawn other than departments fear what video of police interactions might show to the public? And if they have something to fear, so does the public that pays their salaries and benefits.

Other departments in Western New York, including Niagara Falls, understand the value of this technology in protecting everyone and generally improving the quality of policing. Others, such as Buffalo, are dawdling.

Buffalo recently paid $350,000 to settle a lawsuit by a woman who plausibly claimed that, without cause, two officers injured her in such a way that she suffered three damaged discs in her neck area, required two surgeries for cervical spine disc injuries and four medical exams in connection with a workers’ compensation claim. But what if the officers involved had been wearing body cameras? The truth of the encounter would have been made plain or, perhaps more likely, no conflict would even have occurred.

So what’s the problem? This change is coming and only disadvantage awaits those who delay.