Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Interactions with law enforcement produce conflicting accounts. Memories get foggy. Stories change.
These factors complicate the pursuit of justice. In some cases, criminals are let off the hook, and victims are left to suffer. In others, police officers are accused of inappropriate actions, and the lack of solid evidence on either side can sully the reputation of good officers while failing to ferret out the bad. None of it inspires confidence in the justice system.
Technology offers a solution. Police officers in some Maine departments, including Waterville, Wilton and Gardiner, are wearing small cameras clipped to their uniforms to record video and audio as they answer calls ("Wilton, Waterville police officers wearing cameras on their uniforms," Aug. 17). They are not alone. According to thecrimereport.org, more than 3,000 police departments nationwide are using the cameras, which are more versatile and less costly than dashboard cameras, perfect for central Maine's smaller, cash-strapped departments.
In setting policies related to the cameras, police departments and their civilian overseers must consider privacy. Though it is not required by law in Maine, officers should tell subjects they are being taped, even in public. That becomes an absolute requirement when venturing onto private property or when entering a residence, unless in an emergency. There are benefits to both sides knowing they are on tape -- one study showed that use of force and public complaints against officers decreased with the presence of the cameras.
Officers should be trained so that they record the totality of the incident. An incomplete recording opens the event to misinterpretation. Internal access to the video, and the length of time it is stored, will also have to be addressed.
In addition, it should be clear that the videos are public records available for scrutiny. It is not uncommon for police departments to block access to potentially unflattering information. Earlier this year, the Portland Press Herald filed suit after the paper was denied a 911 transcript related to a shooting in Biddeford in which the police response was questioned.
Those caveats aside, the cameras could prove useful. In domestic violence cases, for instance, police are often frustrated by witnesses who are unwilling to press charges, or who later recant testimony given at the crime scene. Maine police last year recorded more than 5,500 domestic violence assaults, a crime that comes with complex dynamics due the relationship between the offender and the victim. Officer Damon Lefferts of the Waterville Police Department told the Morning Sentinel his camera caught the statement of a victim who later backtracked, allowing the case to move forward.
"Hopefully, I helped her out in the long run," he said.
The cameras could also provide a clearer picture when police interactions turn fatal. A Press Herald report last year found that police have fired on 101 people since 1990, including five fatal shootings of mentally ill people in 2011 alone. In each case, the attorney general's office ruled the shooting justified. Absent something close to absolute proof, these cases only reinforce one's firmly held views -- either police rightly shot a crazy person, or a trigger-happy officer acted rashly.
A complete, clear recording would help validate the findings of an investigation, and help the state better understand these violent interactions so that future ones will end differently.