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Opinion: All Cops in Florida Should Wear Body Cameras

The Orlando Sentinel newspaper editorial board calls for a law that would include real consequences for officers who don’t activate their cameras, or who deliberately turn them off to avoid scrutiny.

by Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board / June 9, 2020

(TNS) — Imagine the possible outcome if a video recording had not captured Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.

No matter how many eyewitnesses might have described the brutality that ended Floyd’s life, Chauvin and his fellow officers could have easily concocted an alternative reality where Floyd was resisting the entire time, or he was posing a threat to the police, or he never begged officers to let him breathe, or that Chauvin had never pinned Floyd to the ground with a knee on his neck in the first place.

The video, however, didn’t lie. And because of it, we know what happened to Floyd.

But what if bystanders with cell phones hadn’t been around, or hadn’t recorded the scene? Or what if there hadn’t been any roadside video surveillance?

Those what-ifs are why the Florida Legislature needs to mandate that every patrol officer in Florida must be equipped with a body-worn camera.

Every last one of them.

The law should include real consequences for officers who conveniently forget to activate their cameras, or deliberately turn them off to avoid scrutiny. And it should require the state to help departments pay the expense of the equipment and the digital storage required.

This is a no-brainer, assuming Florida has even a passing interest in addressing the injustices behind recent protests across the nation. State Sen. Randolph Bracy has called for a special session to take up body cameras and other reforms. The governor and legislative leaders should heed his call.

Body cameras are not the answer to police brutality. Not even close.

But it’s a start, and it’s not unprecedented.

South Carolina (that’s not a misprint) passed just such a law in 2015 after Walter Scott, a black man who was fleeing, was shot in the back multiple times by a white police officer in North Charleston. The department tried to lie about the incident but got caught when a bystander’s video of the incident went public.

The law was good P.R. for then Gov. Nikki Haley, but it was riddled with loopholes. The state didn’t provide departments with money to buy cameras. Police weren’t disciplined for failing to use them. And South Carolina lawmakers exempted the footage from public disclosure.

Florida toyed with the idea of mandating body cameras that same year, partly in reaction to the 2014 police shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. But the bill went nowhere, and the state instead seized the opportunity to create a new public-records exemption for body-cam video. The following year the state approved a law requiring law enforcement agencies that use body-worn cameras to have policies guiding their use.

More half measures, more excuses.

Many of Florida’s police departments and sheriff’s offices have equipped their patrol officers with body cameras.

But as long as it’s optional, some departments won’t.

In Lake County, a place burdened with an ugly racial past, Sheriff Peyton Grinnell’s department is an outlier, one of the few in Central Florida refusing to use body-worn cameras.

Holdouts will remain a problem until state lawmakers stop making body-cams optional.

Smart chiefs and sheriffs understand that body cameras protect their cops as much as they protect the public.

If an officer is falsely accused of misconduct, the camera’s there to clear them. If they did wrong, it holds them accountable. It’s one of the few instances where the horrible win-win cliche applies.

“It’s going to catch the good, the bad and the ugly,” Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said in 2015 when he was Daytona Beach police chief. “Everybody behaves better when the cameras are on.”

He’s right.

A 2017 study of 400 officers in Las Vegas found those wearing cameras “generated significantly fewer complaints and use of force reports relative to control officers without cameras.” A yearlong study in Rialto, California, found dramatic reductions in use-of-force by officers wearing cameras and in complaints against officers.

Other studies have been less definitive about the benefits of body cameras, but there’s no questioning whether justice is better served for everyone if there’s video than if there’s not.

Here in Florida, lawmakers have whined about not wanting to place mandates on local law enforcement.

Please. The state has minimum requirements for someone to become a law enforcement officer. It has rules for when officers can stop and frisk someone. It requires police to use an interpreter if they arrest someone who’s deaf. The state even has rules departments must follow to use drones.

As ga-ga as law enforcement is over having the latest equipment, there’s no excuse not to use 21st century technology to protect both the public and cops, and to hold both accountable for their actions.

Video is why Derek Chauvin, now charged with murder, and other officers are being held to account.

Body cameras probably wouldn’t have saved Floyd. Chauvin kept kneeling on his neck and ignoring Floyd’s pleas even though it was apparent people were recording, another reason why Floyd’s death was so horrifying.

But a camera on a cop might save the next victim, and that’s why body cameras need to become as essential to law enforcement as guns.

Since some police departments can’t see that, the state needs to open their eyes.

©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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