Commentary: Why isn’t every cop wearing a camera by now?

Let us consider two recent police shootings—one of them in DeKalb County. If cops aren’t wearing cameras, maybe more of us should be carrying them.

Last month, a DeKalb County patrolman shot and killed an unambiguously unarmed man, drawing an investigation and protest. Two weeks ago, a North Charleston police officer shot and killed an unambiguously unarmed man, drawing an investigation and protest.

There are differences between these two killings, of course. We know that Anthony Hill was unarmed because according to witnesses, he was completely naked when Robert Olsen shot him dead at a Chamblee apartment complex. We know Walter Scott was unarmed because an observer recorded officer Michael Slager as he shot Scott five times in the back before placing what appears to be a Taser near Scott’s dying body.

Witnesses have been challenging the official response of the DeKalb police, that Hill charged Olsen, forcing him to kill the Air Force veteran. But despite video evidence showing Hill’s erratic behavior before his death, there’s no recording of the shooting. We’re left with an account that sounds more or less indistinguishable from that of the North Charleston police before bystander video eviscerated it.

The scandal isn’t Hill’s death, necessarily. It’s that, even in the age of ubiquitous video, we’re left guessing what happened.

DeKalb interim police chief J.W. Conroy told me last year that they had been experimenting with body cameras even before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, with generally favorable results. In practice, the cameras were working as desired, he said, but there were policy considerations to work out around non-enforcement contact with the public, legal issues raised by the use of cameras-on-private-property, and cost—both for the cameras and data storage.

On the legal question, police departments have cited a quirk in Georgia law barring anyone from recording video in a place with a general expectation of privacy. Lawmakers drafted the law to prevent unwanted snooping—using spy cameras to catch the nanny in the bathroom, for instance. But the law inadvertently made it illegal for police to record video without permission in someone’s home . . . even if they’re serving a warrant there.

The ambiguity made policies for camera use problematic.

The legislature fixed that problem this month by passing SB 94, which added a police exception to the law against video recording in a home without consent. The law applies only when a police officer has the legal right to be present in someone’s home, although civil libertarians would have preferred a consent requirement when not serving a search warrant.

And cost? I find that unconvincing. Relative to the value of the evidence, a camera is cheap. If a community pays a cop $30,000 a year to sit in a $50,000 car with a $1,000 gun, a $2,000 computer, and a $3,000 radio, it seems that it should not be hard to find $500 to spend on a camera to improve the quality of evidence in an age where practically everyone in America carries a video camera in their smartphone.

I serve on city council for DeKalb County’s Pine Lake, with a public safety budget of about $200,000 and the equivalent of about four full-time police officers. We somehow found the money for cameras this year.

In the most recent session, Georgia’s legislature wouldn’t consider bills from Senator Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) and Representative Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) mandating cameras on police, despite overwhelming public support. In a recent Economist/YouGov poll, 88 percent of respondents said they supported the use of body cameras by police.

Of course, mandating that police wear body cameras raises a host of questions. Will we hold police officers accountable when we find a suspect beaten by cops who, somehow, forgot to turn their body cameras on? Will policies mandating how video is preserved or copied have staying power? Will the footage be exempt from states’ open records laws? Will prosecutors present footage from police cameras in the same way they do in cases against Joe Citizen?

We live in a society in which the police assert a right to know everything about us, while insisting that we can know nothing about them.

What’s a citizen to do? Well, resist.

Record police when they’re arresting someone. You have the right to do so in public or on your own property, even when the police say you do not. Use this app from the ACLU. It streams directly to the web, so law enforcement can’t erase the video if they snatch your phone. Lock your phone if an officer tries to take it from you. The U.S. Supreme Court last year declared it illegal for police to force you to unlock your phone without a warrant.

We should not only ask police to wear cameras. Police officers should face consequences for confiscating other people’s cameras. It says something that Feidin Santana, the man who captured the video of Walter Scott’s apparent murder at the hands of a police officer, felt he had to hide while recording the footage.

ChidiAtlanta-based journalist and commentator George Chidi is working on a book about civic participation which his experiences both as an Occupy protestor and a city councilman overseeing a small police force. He tweets at @neonflag