Wednesday, April 8, 2015

States Should Mandate the Universal Use of Police Body Cameras Now!

The murder of 50 year old Walter Scott
April 7, 2015
Approximately 300 black men are gunned down by police in the United States every year. It's way too many. It's tainted with racism. Frank Walton, who has been focusing on the issue of police violence on blacks for 30 years said: "91% of the people killed by Police in Chicago in 2012 were Black? 87% in New York? 100% in Saginaw and Rockford?" Nearly half were unarmed.

As a nation we make no effort to track statistics of what percentage of these killings are unjustified. We should. The FBI should be charged with tracking and publishing these statistics. We should do more.  Congress should charge the FBI to investigate every police shooting.  [Here is a crowd sourced effort to identify the total number of police killings/year] We employ about 47,000 people to provide airport screening--surely we can employ 1,500 to investigate police shootings to increase accountability.

On April 7, 2015 officer Michael T. Slager of North Charleston, South Carolina (pop. 100,000/47% black with a police force that is 80% white) murdered a 50 year old black man, Walter Scott.  Slager had made a routine traffic stop in broad daylight for a burned out taillight. Scott ran from the scene; he owed child support.  The officer attempted to subdue him with a stun gun, but that didn't work. Scott ran away, and officer Slager pulled his gun and shot at Scott eight times, killing him.

In case you have any question, no it's not o.k. for a police officer to shoot a suspect because he does not submit to an arrest: not unless the officer or a third person is in mortal danger. There is no justification--ever--to shoot an unarmed fleeing man in the back.

Slager supplied a false report, claiming that Scott had attempted to take his Taser ... that he was in fear of his life. He lied. He might have gotten away with it, like so many others (how many?), but for the video captured on a bystander's phone. In light of the video there is no doubt what happened: a murder. "He made a mistake," said the mayor in announcing the murder charge. Yes, a mistake like a guy who holds up a liquor store to steal cigarettes and blows away the store clerk.

There is doubt about the deterrence of the death penalty for homicides; there is doubt about the efficacy of long prison terms to deter crimes. There is no doubt that the presence of cameras deter police abuses. Let's use them.

The White House has urged local police forces to increase the use of body cameras on police, to be turned on with every encounter. To date no state has legislation that requires the use of cameras to document encounters, although legislation is pending in Iowa. There should be firm strict liability penalties for "equipment malfunctions" or for "forgetting" to activate the cameras.

Police violence on blacks is a matter of national urgency, but Congress may be prohibited from regulating local police forces directly (U.S. v. Lopez invalidated the gun-free schools Act).  Nevertheless, Congress should get involved to encourage States to act; Congress should do what it can to mandate the use of police body cameras, and to do a much better job in gathering and publishing data.

Cameras, information, and transparency deter bad conduct.

In California, the penalty for a police officer filing a false report is punishable under Penal Code Section 118.1. ["Every peace officer who files any report ... regarding the commission of any crime ..., if he or she knowingly and intentionally makes any statement regarding any material matter in the report which the officer knows to be false, ... is guilty of filing a false report punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, or in the state prison for one, two, or three years."]  Such provisions should be vigorously enforced through routine, transparent investigations in every state and in every jurisdiction. This needs to be a priority.

Having fair-minded police forces with integrity is hugely important. We must do better.  Universal use of body cameras, vigorous prosecution of perjury by police officers, and better keeping of statistics is a good place to start.

How do we get our legislatures to act?

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