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Body cameras offer unbiased window into police actions

Outlook Editorial


It would have been humorous had it not been so disappointing. It was last week when Don't Shoot Portland protesters came to Gresham with the important mission of raising awareness of excessive force by police, especially against people of color. Their protests were inspired by recent incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, which captured national headlines.

How sad that the lead protester sullied the moment by picking a fight with local law enforcement, perhaps even baiting Gresham cops into a confrontation.

In the moments before the protesters made their 3.5 mile walk through West Gresham, the leader of the group made this statement: “We don't know how the police in Gresham are going to react. So we want to set the precedent for peaceful behavior. We don't want to give these guys out here a reason. Because I know one thing, cops in Gresham don't get much activism out here, and they've been itching for years to beat some heads in.”

Really?

If there is one thing we know it's that Gresham Police have been dealing with serious urban crime for decades — gangs, drugs, murders, assaults, sex crimes and property crimes. It's not as if Gresham is only now becoming aware of its connection to Portland. It's not as if Gresham is some type of 1950s Mayberry.

The funny part is in how the Gresham Police avoided taking the bait. Even when the marchers ventured off the sidewalk and blocked traffic, Gresham Cops chose discretion ahead of confrontation.

The cheap shot was all the more disappointing because the protesters truly do have an important message on the subject of excessive force. We join the protesters in their message that Americans should never need to fear the very people employed to protect them.

Thankfully, that does not seem to be a significant concern in Gresham, where only five complaints of excessive force have been lodged against the Gresham Police out of 210,000 contacts over the last three years, according to numbers provided by the Gresham Police Department.

What we would like to have, however, is a window into those exchanges. We would like a vantage point from which to view just exactly how police are conducting their business, how people react, and how incidents escalate into violence.

Short of actually being there, a body camera worn by a police officer would provide an unfiltered, unbiased view of what happens in those exchanges, which would allow people to judge for themselves whether a police officer was justified in the use of force, or whether the officer crossed an ethical line.

Body cameras will not be the cure for all that is wrong in the judicial system. In the case of Eric Garner, the New York man who was tackled and placed in a chokehold by police, and who died as a result, we are left to wonder how a grand jury could possibly view the video and decide the police officer reacted with reasonable force.

In Garner's case, what we saw on camera did not lead to an indictment of the New York cop. But because of the video, the New York cop cannot hide from what transpired. Garner, though agitated, was unarmed and was not attacking the police. Garner was outnumbered, and his alleged crimes certainly did not warrant the deadly force shown on the video.

Because a video camera recorded the “arrest,” the American people can judge for themselves whether the police response was appropriate. When police officers know their actions are being recorded, they will be far less likely to cross that thin line. Likewise, the video also will show police as they perform their duties according to their training and policy.

Police in Gresham, Troutdale and Fairview are considering the use of body cameras. We applaud these local police agencies for their forward thinking. And we urge them to move forward with the use of these cameras as soon as possible.

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