Body cameras are coming to a police officer near you, pending final approval in the fiscal year 2023 budget that’s slated for adoption next week. We think this is great news for the residents of Alexandria and the public safety officers whose job it is to protect all of us.
We have long lamented the lack of body-worn cameras for police officers in this city, particularly in recent years as neighboring jurisdictions like Washington, D.C., Arlington and Fairfax counties, along with the U.S. Capitol police, all implemented programs. We commend City Manager Jim Parajon and the new City Council for prioritizing this program in next year’s budget.
Seldom in Alexandria is there such consensus around an important issue.
Advocates for police accountability support the measure because more footage should make it easier to prosecute officers who use unnecessary force or act inappropriately. It’s a step away from “He said, she said” situations concerning police conduct, which in the past has often led to acquittal for officers.
Police officers themselves welcome cameras because they offer them protection against false accusations of inappropriate behavior. In recent years, Alexandria has had difficulty recruiting and retaining police officers and our city’s lack of body cameras has surely been one factor, admittedly among many, in that equation.
Such consensus around a difficult issue is a cause for both celebration and caution. Is it a rare meeting of the minds, or do opposing sides have such radically different expectations that both are going to be disappointed?
We think residents would be wise to heed the caution expressed by former City Councilor Mo Seifeldein around the body-worn camera program. Though Seifeldein strongly supported both body cameras and the new police review board, he cautioned that outcomes may not look terribly different after implementation.
We think this is because both sides are envisioning best case scenarios, in which their already held views are vindicated. The “best case” will definitely play out at times, when either police behavior is clearly unacceptable or the accusation so off base that camera footage makes prosecution or vindication of police officers an easy call.
But most of life is lived in the gray area, the in-between, where something is off and partially, but not fully, explained by circumstances.
Footage of incidents under question is likely to show events rapidly unfolding, life-altering decisions by officers or suspects made in a split second and frequent ambiguity. This means punishment is going to remain meted out on a case-by-case basis, sometimes favoring the officer and sometimes the suspect where there is a dispute.
We think body-worn cameras are going to show that Alexandria’s police officers are usually brave, caring and professional. The cameras are also going to offer proof in the instances when there are clear misdeeds.
In our divided world filled with demagoguery and disinformation, that’s probably the best we can hope for.