Body cameras can help police to perfect their work

Recent shootings of black men have resulted in a rush to put body cameras on police as a way to 'catch them.' Yet recordings of police who handle difficult situations well would be the best result from 'body cams,' creating models to emulate.

AP Photo
Seattle police officer Debra Pelich wears a video camera on her eyeglasses as she talks with Alex Legesse before a small community gathering in Seattle, Washington.

Police officers are in a “performance profession,” much like teachers or ballet dancers. Their work, which requires quick reflexes, is expected to be perfect. When it is not, such as in the recent police shootings of unarmed black men in South Carolina and elsewhere, a common reaction is to focus on what is wrong with the entire profession.

Sharp questions are being asked of police these days: Do many have an implicit racial bias? Are they too arrogant in traffic stops? Do they too quickly escalate a confrontation?

Reforms are now being proposed to better expose police mistakes and to hold officers more accountable. Over the past year, in which civilians have used cameras to capture police shootings gone wrong, the most popular proposal has been to place body cameras on every cop. President Obama, for example, promises $75 million for the purchase of 50,000 cameras for law enforcement officers.

This reform is not without merit. Studies of the few police departments that already use such cameras suggest the mere presence of a recording device has a “civilizing effect,” not only on police but on the people they encounter. Complaints about police have declined in these communities. Cops seem to be more calm and courteous. Violent incidents are fewer. Investigations of wrongdoing are made easier.

Yet the resistance to “body cams” remains strong, and not only from police who fear exposure of their work. The cameras can invade the privacy of civilians, such as children during investigations of domestic violence. The costs of storing or reviewing the videos are high. At times, such as when police officers need to talk to informants, the cameras must be shut off.

This resistance and the problems that the cameras might bring could be more easily overcome if this reform were viewed in an entirely different light. The recordings could be used as a valuable teaching tool in highlighting the many cases in which police officers acted well during the hundreds of different types of difficult situations. They would serve as models for how police can be the perfect professional.

A few police departments, such as in Miami and in Britain, have used such recordings to help both rookies and experienced officers improve their performance. But the practice remains rare.

One “performance profession” that has discovered the value of watching videos of perfect practitioners is teaching. Doug Lemov, an American educator, has collected hundreds of videos of teachers with proven effectiveness in the classroom. His book, “Teach Like a Champion,” and his workshops have helped thousands of teachers learn from the best in the field.

Too often a profession is forced to focus on its errors rather than its excellence. This can distort or slow reform.

If police in the United States and elsewhere want to keep their professional prestige and avoid tragic violence, body cameras might be one good solution. But they should be used as much as a learning tool as a correcting rod.

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