The new Salt Lake City policy to make body-cam video public within 10 days of a “critical incident” is a step in the right direction that should have been taken years ago. A recent study on the use of police body cameras has shown there is no statistical difference in how officers and civilians behave when their encounters are caught on tape, but that doesn’t diminish the public value of consistent camera use, assuming the public gets to see what is recorded.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill deserves credit for encouraging all police agencies within his jurisdiction to adopt the 10-day policy. It is a surprise of sorts. In the past, Gill was slow to release video of incidents involving the use of deadly force by police. And while the city’s new posture is a welcome clarification of policy, it still contains vague language that may eventually require clarification.
Those who have pushed for the use of cameras have presumed their presence would affect police behavior — having a moderating effect, perhaps, since the officers know their actions are being recorded. The study from Washington, D.C., showed there was no significant difference in several metrics of police and public behavior when cameras were used. The study gathered data from the patrol activities of more than a thousand officers wearing cameras and compared it to data gathered from a similar-sized group that wasn’t equipped with body-cams. There was no significant difference in the number of civilian complaints, the rate of successful prosecutions or in the exercise of officer discretion as measured by disorderly conduct arrests.
We have favored the use of the cameras not primarily as an ameliorating influence in police behavior, but as a tool for transparency and public accountability. But we recognize that there is no single panacea in solving complaints and conflicts.
There have been cases, for example, in which the release of video of incidents involving controversial police behavior incited strong public reaction and fueled anti-police attitudes. Images on cameras do not always depict events in full context, which has led to police reluctance in making certain videos public. We don’t support violent reactions to videos, regardless of content. We do support reaction and dialogue that leads to accountability and change where change is needed.
Prosecutors like Gill have worried that public disclosure can adversely impact fair and impartial prosecution. The new Salt Lake City policy appears to accommodate those concerns while appropriately erring on the side of public transparency, though it still gives the district attorney authority to seal video in cases involving “unusual or unforeseen circumstances.” That language is broad enough to give considerable latitude to withhold video, which may diminish the policy’s public value. The public expects and deserves transparency. Salt Lake City’s policy is an imperfect but nonetheless positive step toward embracing openness. Other municipalities in Utah would be well served to follow suit.