Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Changes needed for police


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If something good can emerge from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri due to a grand jury declining to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, we hope that President Barack Obama's announcement this week of a $263 million program that will provide up to 50,000 body cameras for police will be swiftly implemented. The technology will add a layer of accountability for officers and the public. And while the events in Ferguson may have been the catalyst, it's clear in the reporting since Brown's death in August that police departments are more militarized – thanks to the purchase of surplus military equipment – and that officers don't always follow proper procedures.

Robert McColloch, the prosecutor who convened the grand jury, took the unprecedented step last week of releasing all of the materials the grand jury heard, as well as transcripts of the testimony. The documents revealed numerous irregularities in police procedure and it's clear that Wilson, who has since resigned from the Ferguson Police Department, mishandled evidence after the shooting by, among other things, placing his gun in an evidence bag himself and washing blood off his hands. According to the testimony, Wilson also returned to the police station unescorted, a highly unorthodox move. The transcripts showed that officers who interviewed Wilson did not tape the proceeding, another unusual decision. We certainly hope that police department officials around the country look at the mistakes in Ferguson so that they can be prevented. It's inexcusable that these lapses were allowed to happen, since, as the Washington Post reported last week, a 2013 Justice Department manual on processing crime scenes – which was developed in conjunction with police departments across the country – is clear that suspects should not use the bathroom, wash their hands, or brush their hair.

The larger questions that have arisen in the aftermath of Brown's shooting will not be solved by equipment such as body cameras. But they would provide visual evidence that would aid investigators. As the grand jury testimony showed, eyewitness accounts were unreliable – no surprise there – with witnesses offering contradictory accounts of what happened in the roughly 90 seconds from when Wilson and Brown first interacted to the fatal shots being fired. Had Wilson been wearing a body camera, the investigation might have been more conclusive.

Policies and procedures for implementing cameras should be devised to ensure proper and effective use. Any body camera is only effective if it is operating, so it should be mandatory that officers turn on the cameras when they begin their shifts, and leave them on. Outgoing Oakland Mayor Jean Quan posted on Facebook Tuesday that after she took office four years ago, she and the federal monitor overseeing the police department switched from dashboard mounted cameras to body cameras. She said that since then, complaints against officers are down by 70 percent "and in many cases the cameras have exonerated the officers." But camera use doesn't appear to be consistent, as in at least one case where an officer shot and killed a man, the camera was not on, according to an August San Francisco Chronicle article that looked at the use of body cameras in the wake of Ferguson.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi is a proponent of body cameras for officers. But as he pointed out in the Chronicle story, if turning it on is left up to the officer, the result will be selective, which doesn't help anybody.

Looters and violent protesters in Oakland and San Francisco last week have done absolutely nothing to further the cause of police reform, or addressing underlying racism in our society that Ferguson has so pointedly brought to the fore. Looting businesses and smashing glass windows casts a pall over all demonstrators, even though it was a small group committing the violence.

We want the police to protect us from harm, but we also want them to follow protocols and adhere to constitutional rights. We don't think that happened in Ferguson, and we hope that going forward, civil rights groups, LGBT organizations, and others can work together to bring about substantive change.












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