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EDITORIAL: Police cams prove their worth as independent witnesses

In this Sept. 23, 2017 photo provided by Centinel Solutions, a model displays a camera mounted below the barrel of a handgun in New York. Some police departments are considering putting cameras on officers' guns, saying they would give a better, unobstructed view of police-involved shootings and save money on video storage costs compared with body cameras. (Gavin Smith/Centinel Solutions via AP)

A video released Thursday that showed a fatal shooting by a Chicago police officer underscored the value of cop cameras. Dash cams and body cams create a separate record of controversial events that help the public understand what happened.

The video released Thursday by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability showed an officer fatally shooting a 19-year-old man, Juan Flores, who had backed an SUV abruptly into the officer, pinning him against his police cruiser. The footage shows the officer opening fire at that point.


In past cases like this, we would have a police version of the incident, but nothing from the person who died. This time around, a police dash cam gave us another strong witness. From the video, it is evident the officer, whose leg was broken, had reason to believe his life was in peril. We can see much of what happened, and make our own judgments.

Often, police are reluctant to strap on body cameras because it makes them feel their every move is being watched, but this incident, which occurred in September in the Hanson Park neighborhood in the Northwest Side, showed how the cameras can support the police version of events.

Dash cams and body cams worn by police have been spreading across the country. The New York Times reports that by 2015, 95 percent of large police departments had started using police cameras or planned to do so soon. Chicago police are even considering adding cameras mounted on guns that would start recording as soon as a firearm is unholstered. Such cameras, though costly, would add yet another source of information for anyone trying to recreate the scene of a fatal police shooting.

In the years since they have been introduced, police cameras have been poorly or underused — or just proved a disappointment. Body cams, which must be activated by officers, aren’t always turned on. Cameras catch a bad angle on event, or capture only part of a scene. Footage can omit context and be misleading.

The cameras, particularly as they improve, also may capture ever-sharper images of bystanders, raising privacy concerns.

Moreover, a recent study in Washington suggests pervasive police cameras don’t improve officers’ behavior as much as originally hoped.

Despite their imperfections, the cameras clearly are creating independent records of such controversial moments as police-involved shootings. That’s a benefit both to police and the communities they serve.

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WARNING: Graphic content. Incident occurs at 04:49.