North Charleston was the scene of an appalling cellphone video that understandably went “viral” last month. It showed North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager fatally shooting Walter Scott, a 50-year-old, unarmed black man who was trying to flee on foot from a traffic stop on April 4.
North Charleston is also the hometown of Tim Scott (no relation), the first black person elected to the U.S. Senate from the South since the 19th century. And Sen. Scott made a strong case for police body cameras Tuesday as the first witness at a hearing of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, chaired by fellow South Carolinian Lindsey Graham.
As Sen. Scott told the panel: “They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Then a video is worth a thousand pictures and untold lives.”
Pointing out that he grew up “in a single-parent household in poverty in North Charleston,” Sen. Scott stressed that body cameras can be “an important piece of the puzzle in rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the community.”
Certainly too many black Americans lack trust in the police. A shameful history of race-based mistreatment is difficult to overcome. Long-standing suspicion of the authorities inevitably undermines many minority communities’ cooperation with police, creating and exacerbating divisive misunderstandings. That also perpetuates unfair assumptions about the vast majority of police who aren’t guilty of such bias.
Leonard Pitts Jr.’s column on today’s Commentary page reflects that profound mistrust. And while failing to cooperate with police officers is never a good idea, neither is using high crime rates in any community as an excuse for police brutality.
Though Sen. Scott correctly said Tuesday that there’s “no panacea” for this problem, he’s right about the need for body cameras.
He also convincingly touted his “Opportunity Agenda” of “long-term solutions” for Americans locked in a cycle of poverty and joblessness. He stressed the positive potential of “education,” “work skills,” “entrepreneurship programs” and “apprenticeship programs where you can earn and learn at the same time.”
Yet Sen. Scott fairly warned that while federal grants to help fund body cameras are warranted, that “should not be confused with federalizing local policing.”
Meanwhile, cost isn’t the only challenge on the body-camera front. Privacy issues are involved, too.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, raised a crucial question that will be asked when viewing body-camera evidence: “What did the officer choose to record, and what did he choose not to record?”
Still, knowing that you’re being watched tends to deter misconduct by most people — in or out of police uniform.
As Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, told the senators: “Simply put, everyone — including the officer and the person interacting with the officer — tends to behave better when they know they are being filmed.”
That means police body cameras in our community, state and nation are a practical investment in restoring trust between law enforcement and all Americans.