Congress' Response to Ferguson Is Finally Here

AP

The news: After weeks of clashes between protesters and heavily armed riot police in Ferguson, Mo., following the police killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown, one senator has a simple solution to help prevent future law enforcement excesses: mandatory body cameras for all uniformed officers whose departments receive federal funding.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told the Springfield News-Leader that such a program requirement would constitute a "great legacy" stemming from Brown's death. She condemned the heavy-handed police crackdown on protesters, particularly officers who threatened reporters, and said that the body cams would protect police officers following legal guidelines for use of force, while reassuring community members that their rights would be respected.

Currently, video evidence usually only covers the tail end of a police incident, McCaskill told the News-Leader: "It gives the impression the police officer has overreacted when they haven't. If the police officer has a small body cam, then not only is the community reassured that's someone not being treated unfairly, it protects that police officer from being accused of treating someone unfairly."

McCaskill plans to chair hearings next month on the militarization of police in the U.S., which will hopefully include a discussion of body cameras. 

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The background: Body cams have undergone only limited deployment across the United States, but early trials have had impressive results. In Rialto, Calif., mandatory body cams for patrol officers resulted in a nearly 60% decline in use of force and an 88% drop in citizen complaints.

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The Wall St. Journal reported that most of the staggering improvement is believed to be the result of the cameras' psychological impact. Knowing they'd be held responsible for whatever happens on camera, both officers and suspects were politer and less likely to escalate situations, leading to less suspect-initiated violence and less use of force by police.

Of course, cost remains an issue, but prices for this kind of equipment are falling rapidly. The Wall Street Journal notes that taser technology went from virtually nonexistent to in use in more than two-thirds of U.S. police departments in about 10 years. Meanwhile, the Pentagon's 1033 program has handed out some $4.3 billion in excess military gear to local police departments, a number dwarfed by $34 billion in federal counterterrorism grants between 2003 and 2011. If we can afford to provide cops with 5.56mm rifles, military-style assault gear and armored vehicles, we can afford to give all of them a cheap, tamper-proof body cam.

Why you should care: Body cams might prove to be a win-win solution for cops and the public — with the proper protections for privacy, even the ACLU is on board. Thanks to a near-complete lack of oversight and poor transparency rules, it's not always clear how and why police departments gained access to high-grade military equipment — but making sure they have to wear body cams when they use it may dramatically impact rates of excessive force.