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Recording police interactions: What do officers have to fear?

| May 21, 2016 | Criminal Appeals |

Last fall, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation told reporters that there was a “Ferguson effect” taking place nationwide. What James Comey meant by that comment was that many police officers were allegedly afraid to do their jobs effectively because of the risk that their interactions would be recorded and put online. Cellphone video, Comey argued, would lead to a sharp increase in crime.

These statements were sharply criticized by the public and by police officers, and rightly so. Yet Comey continues to assert this view in news briefings, most recently earlier this month at a briefing in Washington.

As the New York Times editorial board has pointed out, Comey’s comments are (at best) a distraction from the larger issue: police brutality. The cellphone video taken by suspects and witnesses serves as a check on law enforcement authority and abuse of power. Without it, discrepancies between an officer’s version of events and anyone else’s version would likely be resolved in favor of the officer.

Moreover, Comey’s take on the situation is unsupported by facts and data. There has been no national “crime wave.” In fact, in many major cities, crime rates have dropped.

Earlier this week, we wrote about the need for objectivity and transparency in how police and prosecutors do their jobs. Interviews with suspects in custody need to be recorded to ensure that suspects are not coerced or tricked into giving a false confession.

And while it may not be entirely necessary (at this time) for officers to wear body cameras, there should be no objection to individuals recording their own interactions with police.

Police officers are entrusted with a lot of power and authority, including the means and authority to kill when necessary. Such power should not go unsupervised. If the criminal justice system is working as it should, there is no reason to fear increased transparency.


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