Bob Sparks: Police body cameras can exonerate as well as implicate

There is no way to sugar coat it. The relationship and level of trust between urban African-American communities and police is at its lowest point in decades.

Bringing people together will take an honest assessment of where we are followed by good-faith suggestions for solutions. Everyone must understand it is tough being a cop and they are sometimes at fault, but not always. Those complaining about police treatment are sometimes true victims, but not always.

Fatal encounters between black men and police engender more media attention than ever. There are usually two sides to the story. We need to quickly have access to the real story to prevent the dissemination of rumors and conjecture.

Recently, Sean Pittman, a prominent Tallahassee attorney, proposed a worthy suggestion in a Tallahassee Democrat op-ed.   His first sentence clearly laid out an issue worthy of the increased discussion it now generates.

“The deployment of police body cameras must move beyond debate.” He then ticked off the list of recent tragedies involving police and black youth and men.

No one can quarrel with his description of nearly all of those encounters. Unfortunately, the description of the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Mo., is symptomatic of our communication problems and why his call for body cameras is worth pursuing.

“Mike Brown was unarmed when shot in the back by police,” he wrote.

This is deeply troubling and counterproductive. Three autopsies, including one conducted by the Justice Department, came to similar conclusions: Brown was shot multiple times from the front, plus one time on the hand, pointing to a struggle for Officer Darren Wilson’s gun.

It should be noted the Justice Department also pointed out several problems between the Ferguson Police Department and the African-American community in another report. Lack of trust and civil rights violations dominated that narrative.

That said, I agree with Pittman and those who believe body cameras could go a long way toward restoring trust between police and the individual communities. We could certainly gain the right answers sooner, hopefully before any violence begins.

Pittman goes on to mention other tragedies in his column. Walter Scott was indeed shot in the back in South Carolina. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was in fact killed in Cleveland while innocently playing with a pellet gun.

Eric Harris was indisputably shot in the back by a volunteer deputy in Tulsa. Pittman uses the word “strangled” (a word normally used to report an act of capital murder) to describe Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, N.Y. While such a word may be too strong, Garner was, in effect, suffocated as the video shows.

As Pittman accurately recounted, more than 100 shots were fired into the car of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in Cleveland, including 15 by an officer jumping onto the hood of the car to fire the last 15. No one disputes that Freddie Gray died while in police custody in Baltimore.

Is it possible that one or some of these cases may have involved just a mistake or a lack of training? We have no visual evidence to determine the answer. The Garner and Scott cases, however, are chronicled on video.

With no video, we are forced to use autopsies to determine Michael Brown was not shot in the back. One need not be of any particular race to question the circumstances or how this and other incidents played out.

Fair-minded individuals want justice for those wrongly targeted, but they also do not wish for law enforcement to be unfairly accused. To reach that happy medium, we must be dealing with the same set of facts.

We should all want to know exactly what really happened to Freddie Gray and why police felt it necessary to fire all of those shots at Russell and Williams. Why did Tamir Rice die?

Pittman says deploying body cameras “creates transparency, equalizes available evidence, minimizes excessive police force and reduces unjustifiable complaints against officers.”

He is right. There may be more who agree with the use of body cameras than disagree.

This may well include a majority of police, so a consensus seems to be developing. Cameras can exonerate officers, or their accusers, just as easily as they can implicate.

For those against body cameras, what are your ideas for repairing the relationships?

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.



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