One police body cam might have averted Ferguson riots

Outrage, massive demonstrations, riots and backlash: It’s what happens in America when a police officer shoots an unarmed black man without obvious justification in a city plagued by racism.

The absence of hard evidence has made a bad situation worse. One obvious remedy – the police body camera – might have made all the difference.

We know that Officer Darren Wilson shot 18-year-old Michael Brown six times Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri. Beyond that, it’s he-said vs. she-said. Police say Brown was struggling for Wilson’s gun at the door of the squad car; witnesses say Brown was standing at a distance with his hands up.

Forensics experts are quite good at reconstructing how killings happened. Gunshot residue will be found – or not found – on Brown’s clothing. (It hasn’t been found on his body.) It will be found – or not found – on Wilson’s car. Bullet trajectories will be analyzed. This will be one of the most meticulously analyzed crime scenes in the country, and presumably we’ll get a much clearer picture of what happened.

In the meantime, we’re left with an information vacuum. Information vacuums get filled with guesses, preconceptions and suspicions. The latter are abundant in the St. Louis area, where – as in many American cities – blacks have gotten the short end of the criminal justice system for more than two centuries. People burdened by that history will tend to expect the worst of the police.

We can’t imagine why officers in a place like Ferguson shouldn’t routinely wear body cameras, which would visually record their interactions with citizens.

If Wilson’s version of the shooting were accurate, the camera might have quickly established that in a very public way. If the shooting were unjustified, the Ferguson Police Department might have quickly acknowledged the deadly blunder instead of closing ranks and protecting its own. A vow to clean house could have taken some of the edge off the community’s anger.

Some police associations are wary of body cameras – as they were of dashboard cameras in the 1990s. It’s hard to see why.

Where they’ve been used, citizen complaints of police misconduct have tended to fall. In part, that’s probably because abuse-prone officers don’t want to be caught. But suspects and others who run afoul of the police often make loose accusations against officers. They aren’t likely to pursue false claims against law enforcement if they know their own behavior has been captured on video.

Some skeptics believe the cameras pose a threat to privacy. But video cameras are already everywhere; most Americans now carry them in cell phones. Officers can turn their body cams off when interviewing crime victims with legitimate fear of exposure.

Police departments have worried about costs; until recently, the cameras have run about $1,000 per officer. But the price of both the devices and data storage have been falling. Cameras are now running around $400. Compare that to the cost of a police misconduct lawsuit.

For that matter, compare it to the cost of the riots in Ferguson.

Technology can’t fix the poverty and resentments behind those riots. But if something as simple as a camera can prevent a spark from igniting an explosion, it would be foolish not to use it.