Editorial: Body cams on police need public comment, best practices

Editorial from The Plain Dealer The recent purchase of 1,500 body cameras for Cleveland patrol officers is a welcome move in trying to rebuild credibility and trust with a public still concerned over the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and a recent U.S. Justice Department report that excoriated the police department's use of force.

Body cams on police officers have the potential to increase transparency, accountability and professionalism. But the technology is only as effective as the policies that govern its use.

In 2013, the Police Executive Research Forum partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice to make recommendations on the use of such cameras. A key finding was "the need for a set of standards and best practices regarding body-worn cameras."

Now's the time to develop specific policies for the body cams' use in Cleveland, with full input from the public.

What training will officers undergo? How will privacy issues around crimes such as sexual assaults, domestic violence and abuse of minors be handled? What protocols will govern the release of public records?

"The public needs to understand how these cameras are gonna work," said Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed, who has been demanding body cams for the better part of a decade. "But we [council] are not doing our due diligence. We should have a policy in place that clearly states what we're gonna do."

Reed is right.

The city of Cleveland is developing a policy that is "in the final stage of review," according to an email from police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia. She added that she did not know when officers were expected to start wearing the body cams, but suggested there would be a public announcement about the general policy on use around the time of their deployment.

Dan Williams, a spokesman for Mayor Frank Jackson, did not return calls for comment. It's unclear whether the city plans public hearings on the policy before it is implemented.

Council President Kevin Kelley said developing the policy wasn't council's job. "It's ultimately an administrative decision," he said.

Kelley is wrong. Council has a duty to make sure the public is included -- via public hearings -- for full transparency on what the policy encompasses, and also to make sure that all concerns are taken into account.