Our View: Body cameras well worth the investment for officers, Nevada County community
Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard said this week the addition of body-worn cameras to his department was essentially adding the latest tool to be expected in fully equipping today’s law enforcement officers to do the job.
And, according to a recent study, it’s a tool that is proving to effectively improve officer interactions with the public. The thinking, of course, is that both parties involved in such interactions are more likely to be on their best — or at least better — behavior if they know they’re on camera.
A study by the University of Cambridge followed seven police departments across the U.S. and the U.K., and tracked the number of complaints filed against the roughly 2,000 officers in the year before they began wearing body cameras, then compared that number to the complaints filed in the year after. In all, complaints dropped from 1,539 in the year before to just 113 for all seven departments in the year after a dramatic reduction of 93 percent.
“I cannot think of any (other) single intervention in the history of policing that dramatically changed the way that officers behave, the way that suspects behave, and the way they interact with each other,” the lead author of the study, Dr. Barak Ariel, told the BBC.
In a day and age where nearly everyone has a camera at hand through smartphone technology, incidents between police and the public are often captured on video.
But those videos might only include footage certain aspects of the incident, or even selective editing. In order to ensure the full context of such incidents is also captured, body-worn cameras can help protect officers from false claims. If members of the public file claim abuse by officers, or if officers allege that subjects resisted arrest, footage from body-worn cameras could be a tool to settle such discrepancies.
With Grass Valley Police’s addition of the cameras for its officers, that leaves only the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office as a local law enforcement agency not using the devices. That’s despite a recommendation for the sheriff’s office to do so by the Nevada County Civil Grand Jury earlier this year.
The chief concern is the cost, according to Sheriff Keith Royal and county supervisors. According to Royal, the cameras would cost $80,000-$100,000 to buy cameras and associated equipment for his department’s more than 70 sworn officers. The annual upkeep cost is unknown.
Royal also pointed to what he described as unsettled law regarding required storage and release of the video records, and said the possibility of requests for the footage could “tie up our staff time inherently.” The sheriff’s office already outfits its patrol cars with dash cameras with audio capability, he added.
In filing a response to the grand jury, the board of supervisors discussed the cost of the cameras. But Supervisor Richard Anderson aptly noted the cameras could also cut the cost associated with lawsuits filed with officer-involved incidents, noting Truckee’s police had seen reduced investigation times and risk of litigation with the use of cameras.
Certainly, based on the number of officers alone, the cost to outfit the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office would be more substantial than Truckee or the Grass Valley Police Department, which includes 24 sworn officers. It might mean shifting some priorities to cover that cost.
And considering the potential cost of defending a case with evidence falling short of providing the full context of an incident — or the apparent vast reduction in complaints filed against police officers who wear the cameras — can Nevada County actually afford not to add this technological tool to its sheriff’s office?
The weekly Our View column represents the viewpoint of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@ TheUnion.com.
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