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Citizen lens helps keep cops honest

“These surveillance cameras are an integral part of our daily operations and make us stronger.” – Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda

Of course, he was talking about cameras police use to catch civilian miscreants.

When the lens is in the other hand – as with the YouTube video showing a Buffalo cop assaulting a helpless drug suspect – some police have become notoriously camera-shy. From Florida to Connecticut to Maryland, examples abound of civilians being arrested for turning their cameras on cops.

To his credit, Derenda applies no such double standard. Six officers were quickly suspended – one without pay – as a result of the citizen video made public last weekend.

“Cameras are a good thing. People should be aware cameras are out there,” the commissioner said.

He later made it clear that he wasn’t talking just about the roughly 200 surveillance cameras police have installed across the city, but also those wielded by citizens to keep police honest.

“It’s both,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. People should act appropriately, no matter what.”

With that kind of message filtering down from the commissioner and Mayor Byron Brown, maybe we finally have a way to weed out bad cops and make good ones live up to their responsibilities.

One can easily imagine how police would have explained any bruises found on this suspect, absent the video showing an officer kicking and hitting him as he lies handcuffed, facedown on the ground. Such “testilying” at trial becomes impossible when everyone has seen the assault on YouTube.

Civilian video can also do more than ID abusive cops: It can identify their enablers at the scene. That can help shatter the “blue wall” of silence that makes cops stick together, even when they shouldn’t. Knowing their own careers could be on the line for not reporting abuse could make good cops ask themselves a simple question: If a rogue cop would endanger my career, how much loyalty do I owe him?

No one advises walking into a live crime scene and yelling, “Smile! You’re on ‘Candid Camera.’ ” But as long as you’re not interfering with police, the American Civil Liberties Union notes a First Amendment right to record images in public places, including of police at work. It’s reassuring that Buffalo officials recognize that, as well.

As evidence of the department’s seriousness in going after bad cops, Derenda cites the aggressive crackdown on those who abuse the “injured on duty” compensation system, saying the city has cut the number of cases from 123 to 18.

The initial response to the beating video indicates the Brown administration is being just as proactive in protecting suspects from abuse.

The irony is that the proliferation of cellphone cameras comes more than a decade after some of us pushed repeatedly for a Civilian Review Board to monitor police behavior, as exists in other cities. That effort went nowhere in Buffalo, thanks to timid politicians afraid of riling police.

Now, with almost everyone having a cellphone camera, we could have the ultimate civilian review – and an administration that appears willing to act on the evidence.