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A Body-Cam Replay

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As we know all too well, it isn't just in other cities — Baltimore, Ferguson, Milwaukee — or in the scenarios of a proliferating number of TV cop shows, that the issue of police/community relations is on the front burner

(in every sense of that metaphor). Memphis has had the sad experience, within the last year, of prominent cases involving life-threatening and even life-ending violence by citizens against police and the converse, of police against citizens. And it scarcely reduces the anxieties that have been aroused that these instances, as has been the case elsewhere, are not simple cases of black versus white. There has arisen a fundamental distrust between the supposed guardians of civic law and order and the host population which, in theory, is being protected by the police. As it happens, blacks are likely to be on both sides of the dividing line between victims and perps, and so are whites.

Further complicating the issue is the increasing danger of organized terrorist activity, which, by its very nature, can happen anywhere — not just in Paris or San Bernardino. And where it happens, these outbreaks clearly require the existence of police responders — SWAT teams or the equivalent — capable of suppressing them. That need runs directly counter to an argument, equally well-reasoned, that urban police units have in our time become too militarized in equipment and attitude, and need to be reduced to a more human scale, less provocative to the communities they serve.

In short, the problem is complicated.

One of the answers that is increasingly put forward — again, here as elsewhere — is for there to be a systematic use of body cameras for police so as to provide a record of police-citizen interactions for the mutual protection of both. It is no accident that body-cam footage of a street youth's death in Chicago, once pried loose from attempts at suppression by city authorities, turned out to incriminate the officers on the scene — and to place the mayor of that city, Rahm Emanuel, in direct jeopardy of losing his job.

But, as was reported on the Flyer's website Tuesday by reporter Toby Sells, there will be further delays in the city's employment of the 1,700 or so body cameras it has acquired for the Memphis Police Department's force of around 2,000 active officers.

Last fall, in the hurly-burly of a city mayoral campaign, the prospect of putting the cameras to immediate practical use was made to seem possible. Now, according to MPD officials, the city will have to appropriate money to hire 10 part-time video analysts to review body-cam footage before it can be made public. 

And there are likely to be even more prohibitive delays and training regimens and costs over the long haul before an effective program will be truly up and running. "We're not there yet," MPD interim director Michael Rallings said.

We hear that. But we would advise both the department and the Memphis City Council to act with all deliberate speed. The meter is running.


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