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July 15, 2014
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Editorial: Police videos lose value if viewers are sparse

“Smile,” began the old catchphrase connected to one of television’s first reality shows. “You’re on ‘Candid Camera.’”

There may not be much smiling in the videos recorded by Roseburg police officers. Will they be candid? That’s yet to be seen.

The department announced earlier this month that officers have begun wearing small cameras clipped to their shirts or belts to record interactions with the public. The goal, police said, is to show the community what happens in potentially confrontational encounters. The cameras are being touted as promoting transparency.

It’s not a pioneering move. Scott Greenwood, general counsel for the national American Civil Liberties Union, told the The Associated Press in March that officers in one of every six departments across the country are patrolling with body cameras affixed to their chests, lapels or sunglasses. Police already use cameras mounted to patrol car dashboards.

The idea has raised concerns on both sides of the viewfinder. Yet representatives of groups on either side also have stated that as long as clear policies are set and followed for use of the cameras, footage can be beneficial to everyone involved. With proper usage of cameras, police can be exonerated of false accusations. They also will be on notice to be more accountable when dealing with witnesses and suspects.

In Roseburg, police are being told to switch on the cameras whenever there is a situation that could turn adversarial. They also must immediately tell people the cameras are going, except in cases that require immediate action where safety must prevail.

What we haven’t heard is what kind of access the public will have to the camera footage.

Videos can be edited, of course, to manipulate images. Also, there’s a chance video will be selectively released.

Police may withhold information if its release might compromise an investigation. The frustration comes when police withhold information about their own activities, apart from criminal investigations. Will police withhold tapes even when their release would not jeopardize the apprehension of an offender?

Last December, a Douglas County grand jury decided sheriff’s deputies and Roseburg police, in two separate cases, were justified in using force against a Canyonville and Sublimity man, respectively, who died after being stunned by Tasers in street scuffles. The decisions came within a day of each other for deaths that had taken place in March and June 2013. In each case, months passed with families complaining they received scant details from law enforcement officials. In both cases, police could have been far more forthcoming far sooner with details about the incidents considering there were no suspects to apprehend.

Police are to be applauded when they genuinely invite more scrutiny. Transparency, however, is in the eye of the beholder. That eye can’t see much when it’s blindfolded “under investigation.”

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The News-Review Updated Jul 15, 2014 12:14PM Published Jul 15, 2014 10:30AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.