Lawmakers are in Bismarck this week for their organizational session. Between the swearing-in and training they’re also working on the bills that will be considered during the regular session next year. Drafts are being circulated for amendment and sponsorship.
Here’s one idea that some lawmaker should take up, if they haven’t already: Funding to pay for body cameras for North Dakota’s law enforcement officers. The recent situation in Fargo, where video clearly shows an officer escalating a confrontation with a student over the dress code into a physical altercation, should be all the justification that’s needed for such a bill. Police now say that the video circulating on the internet isn’t a complete picture of what happened and leaves important details out.
Maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. We shouldn’t have to take their word for it.
In this digital age, when most citizens have a high-quality camera on them at all times attached to a phone or a tablet, we’re seeing a lot more of the interactions between law enforcement and the public caught on camera. Generally, both in North Dakota and around the country, law enforcement generally hasn’t liked this development. We’ve seen numerous instances of cops telling bystanders that it’s illegal to record them (it’s not in most places, nor should it be), and even arresting people with cameras who were doing nothing but observing.
Yet this video can often be very helpful in establishing the truth of a situation. Was a citizen resisting arrest, or was a police officer abusing his/her power? With no video we can only rely on the testimony of those involved, which can often be inaccurate and self-serving. With video, we get an objective view.
But we shouldn’t have to rely on chance when it comes to obtaining video. While it should be every citizen’s duty to record interactions between the police and the public – for the sake of transparency and accountability if nothing else – there’s no reason why law enforcement can’t record video of their own.
Many police vehicles have cameras installed to record things like traffic stops and car chases (regrettably Officer Wilson’s car in Ferguson was lacking one) . Why not expand those things to include body-worn cameras as well?
The technology is available. It works, and it’s affordable. And in a situation like the altercation between a Fargo South student and a school resource officer it’s invaluable.
The public – up to and including parents, teachers, judges, prosecutors and juries – shouldn’t have to rely strictly on witness testimony in these situations. Not when there’s an alternative available. And if you’re resistant to this idea, ask yourself how valuable such footage might be to you if an interaction with a cop goes badly, and the police are disputing your side of the story.
It’s unfortunate that we probably can’t count on the law enforcement community to push for these cameras (former Fargo police chief Keith Ternes has resisted calls for body cams, I have no idea what his replacement thinks) but that’s why we have lawmakers.
The Legislature can, and should, pass a bill ordering law enforcement officers to use body cameras. The Legislature can also fund those cameras. Let’s hope it happens.