Body cameras on police at Ferguson protest

Police officers wear what appear to be body cameras as they hold the line against protesters gathered at the police station during a rally in Ferguson, Mo. on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014 for Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a white police officer three weeks earlier. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Huy Mach)

Ferguson, Mo. police officers have been outfitted with body cameras after weeks of unrest in response to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen.

Law enforcement and eyewitnesses have offered very different accounts of what transpired on Aug. 9 when Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown multiple times in the head and chest. Authorities claim Brown had been engaged in a struggle with the officer. But witnesses say the 18-year-old victim’s hands were raised in surrender when Wilson shot and killed him.

The inconsistency has spurred calls for police officers across the country to be equipped with body cameras to help offer accurate, objective accounts of police encounters. For example, a White House petition with more than 150,000 signatures calls for the creation of a “Mike Brown Law” that would require all police officers to wear the cameras.

“The law shall be made in an effort to not only detour police misconduct (i.e. brutality, profiling, abuse of power), but to ensure that all police are following procedure, and to remove all question from normally questionable police encounters,” the petition reads. The law would also help “to hold all parties within a police investigation accountable for their actions.”

Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch his department was given approximately 50 body cameras by two companies, Safety Visions and Digital Ally, about a week ago.

According to a statement posted on the company’s website, the donation was an attempt to protect both law enforcement and the public by providing transparency during investigations.

In this Jan. 15, 2014 file photo, a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

“The city of Ferguson has gone through an unfortunate series of events and Safety Vision body cameras and flashlight DVR will assist in capturing prima facie evidence for investigations involving vandalism, looting, and shots fired,” the company said in the statement.

According to the Post-Dispatch, Ferguson police officers used the cameras for the first time on Aug. 30 during ongoing protests. According to Jackson, the devices have been well-received by officers.

“They are really enjoying them,” he said. “They are trying to get used to using them.”

The wearable video recorders are catching on elsewhere. New York’s police commissioner is expected to announce a pilot program in the near future in which 50 officers in five of the city’s 76 precincts will be outfitted with the cameras.

A federal judge ordered the department to test-run the devices after ruling that New York officers had acted unconstitutionally by stopping and frisking Blacks and Latinos in disproportionate numbers.

Despite increasing calls for use of the cameras, there are some who worry the devices may undermine privacy.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO