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Police body cameras: building trust and adding accountability

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 11:06 PM EDT
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SAGINAW, Mich. (WJRT) -As we’re inundated with what seems like countless police-involved shootings captivating headlines in recent months, communities across the country are beginning to take a hard inward look at the role of policing in America.

Transparency and accountability for the officers involved, a key facet of the emerging push for change. Body-worn cameras may be the first line of defense in the quest to tell the whole story. The idea is that this still relatively new technology could also play a role in training future officers moving forward, with that central focus on deescalating conflicts with the public. That said, there may be no one size fits all solution moving forward.

In video taken by a bystander in a Saginaw strip mall parking lot one July day in 2012…

Refusing to lay down the knife seen in his hand, Milton Hall, a local homeless man accused of stealing a cup of coffee, at gun-point, defying the six Saginaw PD officers standing in a semicircle toward the bottom of the screen. Witnesses, later describing the trauma of the scene to follow.

Police fired more than 40 rounds. Hall was hit 11 times.

Hall’s mother later told reporters that her son was mentally ill, calling the men who killed him “a firing squad dressed in police uniforms.” Despite the public outrage that followed, charges were never filed. Amid mounting demands for transparency, investigators would reveal only two of the four dashboard cameras at the scene had been working.

Situations like the Hall case, why Saginaw NAACP President Terry Pruitt is working to garner a greater level of transparency from police. Technology, he said, could lead that charge.

“I’m going to be a very strong advocate of body cams,” Pruitt explained during a recent interview with ABC12. “I think every police department ought to have them.”

Body-worn cameras or BWCs have shown the public a newer, more-candid and sometimes, less flattering view of the men and women patrolling America’s city streets.

“We still see, in many communities, a breakdown in the relationship between police and the community,” Pruitt observed.

“We believe it transparency,” Saginaw Township Police Chief Donald Pussehl related. “So, I think it’s a benefit, not only to the police officers, but individuals with whom police officers are interacting.”

Saginaw Township equipped its officers with body cams several years back, rolling out an integrated system that also incorporates the fleet’s in-car cameras partially paid for by its insurance carrier.

“This is one piece of it for developing trust,” Pussehl said. “I think it’s very valuable evidence… now it’s caught on video tape.”

Chief Pussehl teaches criminal justice courses in his spare time, routinely using real-world footage to highlight the benefits as well as the drawbacks.

“With video, it’s like anything else. It’s only one perspective,” he explained. “It may not always be a 100-percent accurate depiction of what happened.”

A 2019 Washington Post survey found roughly half of the US’ nearly 18-thousand police departments then had them equipped. As for those that still don’t, an element of sticker shock attached to the still pricey, high-end tech likely factors into the decision-making. But with talk turning now to defunding police, the question becomes one of their very existence and their role in society.

“A recent Gallup poll revealed 48-percent of Americans don’t trust police.”

“That’s very disappointing,” Michigan State Police Lieutenant Liz Rich responded. “We have to build that confidence back… We are being as transparent as we can.”

The price tag, why the state’s largest police force has yet to fully embrace them.

“We do have a couple of entities within the Michigan State Police… that have those,” Rich said. “It’s just a large barrier for us to overcome the cost associated with implementing all of them.”

Namely, troopers on road patrol, who interact with the public most often, still don’t wear them. Statewide, the technology was in use across roughly 30-percent of Michigan’s departments and more than 50 percent of its officers, according to a ballpark estimate provided to ABC12 by the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

A report from Michigan Capitol Confidential estimated the total cost of outfitting Michigan State Police at $3.5-million. The agency, Lt. Rich said, was on board with the idea, but made it clear the money would first have to materialize.

“We just haven’t jumped through all of the hoops to be there,” she explained. “Some of the smaller departments are able to do that. I think we’re learning from them.”

The tenth anniversary of the Hall shooting next year, looming large. In the time since, the Saginaw Police Department announced it would form a citizen’s advisory committee. Every officer is now also equipped with a body worn camera.

“There’s a lot of discussion… about defunding and refunding,” Pruitt explained. “Here’s an opportunity to kind of rethink the structure of your police department and how you’re expending your funds… If you’ve got the trust of your constituents… the people you’re trying to protect and serve, there’s no greater return on your investment than that.”

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