Editorial: Body cameras for Alexandria 
police are worth a closer look

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Editorial: Body cameras for Alexandria 
police are worth a closer look
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(File Photo)

Whether you are aware of it or not, police officers often use technology to track our movements and record our behavior. Why can’t we do the same to them?

Over the course of the past year, the Alexandria Times has highlighted the Alexandria Police Department’s use of license plate readers, which effectively track motorists’ whereabouts. We also have taken a hard look at the department’s use of red-light cameras, a moneymaking scheme for City Hall that has the added benefit of invading residents’ privacy.

In the years before that, we investigated the reasons why police officials felt it necessary to employ mobile cameras, those orange

monstrosities that the department moves around town in an effort to deter crime and catch those who break the law.

The authorities are watching. And it is perfectly legal.

Unfortunately, it is usually a one-way street. Local law enforcement agencies monitor us whether we have committed a crime or not. But what if we could see what the police see? More importantly, what if we had footage of officers interacting with members of the community?

City Councilor John Chapman wants to explore the feasibility of equipping Alexandria’s officers with body cameras. Think of them as dashboard cameras (as in the TV show “Cops”), just mounted on a police officer’s uniform. If Chapman drums up support for the initiative, all interactions between lawmen and members of the public will be recorded for posterity.

This, on its face, is a win-win. Officers can use the footage for training purposes while prosecutors likely will use the video in a courtroom when mounting a case. On the flip side, people who feel mistreated by officers or are accused of a crime can use the same data to get justice.

At the very least, it will hold all parties accountable for their actions. And it may make people (and officers) think twice about their behavior.

While we support investigating body cameras, there are a few issues that must be dealt with, the first being privacy. We expect many residents would rather authorities not have another means by which to record them. Though we agree that mobile cameras and red-light cameras are far too intrusive, we think body cameras put us all on a level playing field.

Then there is the matter of transparency. While advocates of body cameras argue their use keeps police officers accountable, it only works if officials review the footage and release it to the public or a civilian oversight board, like Alexandria’s human rights commission. Based on our previous experiences trying to get information from local law enforcement agencies, we — unfortunately — expect authorities in Virginia will be less than forthcoming about the images they collect.

Lastly, there is the price tag. Even Chapman admits outfitting police officers might be prohibited by costs. City councilors must weigh this expenditure against other priorities, most notably preserving and creating affordable housing in Alexandria.

Obviously, there is work to be done and many debates to be had before anyone wholeheartedly endorses equipping our police officers with body cameras. Still, this is a good idea, and one that is definitely worth exploring.

It is time to turn the camera on the authorities.

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