Opinion: Body worn cameras, part of a bigger discussion in future of policing

Police Chief John Camper
Free Press Opinion Columnist
John Camper, Grand Junction Chief of Police
Submitted photo |

Just when I thought our policing profession might be starting to emerge from the dense fog of ongoing racism and misconduct allegations, we hear about North Charleston, South Carolina — another police shooting of an unarmed black man, this time resulting in murder charges against the officer. I’ve yet to meet a fellow officer who wasn’t just as shocked and appalled about that video as any other citizen. By all appearances, it violates every tactic, case law, and procedure that is ingrained in all police officers; and it would certainly seem that criminal charges are appropriate.

As predictable as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano though, it is inevitable that this tragic incident will result in legislation, generally of the unfunded variety, meant to “do something” to address a wrong that occurred 1,650 miles away. That legislative zeal to “do something … anything” was predictably apparent in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the in-custody death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. In Colorado, that has come in the form of a dozen or more proposed bills designed to force “reform” upon agencies that by and large have already built years of goodwill and trust amongst our communities. We’re not Ferguson, and we’re not Staten Island, but the broad brush of generalization based on emotion knows no boundaries.

Arising out of North Charleston, you can count on seeing legislation mandating the use of body worn cameras by police officers. Predicting that such a day would come, we are well on the road to already acquiring that technology. Assuming that we can nail down the funding challenges, we intend to equip our officers with body worn cameras by early next year. Although the cameras are not particularly cost-prohibitive, the cost of storing vast terabytes of video data is a challenge that won’t be easy to surmount; and the cost of then accessing, redacting, and providing that video to all who request it will be significant. In addition, the more we record, the more we’ll have to store, so providing our officers with guidance and discretion on when to use the cameras will be critical.

Body worn cameras should provide us with some great benefits in terms of evidence-gathering, accountability, and building community trust in our officers. I am certain that in most instances video will show that our officers acted professionally. Like any technology, however, cameras have their limitations. Unlike a human, cameras don’t come equipped with peripheral vision or a head that can rotate on a neck and shoulders in response to sound or other stimuli. They don’t get the “big picture,” or capture emotion and fear, or sense danger from visual cues. Yet for all those limitations, I fear that some (and by “some,” you can include media, attorneys, and juries) will put far more stock in video than they will in our officers.

Your right to privacy, and our desire for an approachable relationship with our citizens, are two other areas that rarely get mentioned in the debate about body worn cameras. When a citizen wishes to have a private conversation with us about a sexual assault or a problem with their child, for example, I don’t want them to be intimidated by a camera pointing at them. I want our officers to have the discretion to turn off that camera at appropriate times, but then not be criticized for “hiding something” if the camera happens to have been turned off when a critical incident unexpectedly occurs.

As a profession, we must be introspective and continue to find ways to deal with the current decline of trust in policing. There is no doubt room for improvement in the way we interact and collaborate with groups who don’t feel as though they are getting a fair shake in the criminal justice system. But for those who try to paint law enforcement as racist and thuggish, they are just flat wrong. I have never seen a higher level of professionalism, compassion, honesty, and goodness in this field, and those characteristics will get us through this latest period of adversity … better and stronger.

John Camper is proud to have served as the Grand Junction Chief of Police for the past five years. A graduate of Central High School, he spent the first 29 years of his career with the Lakewood Police Department.

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