This editorial originally appeared in the Washington Post.
The video showing former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael T. Slager shooting Walter L. Scott dead is sickening.
There is a full-color record of Slager firing eight shots at the back of a fleeing Scott, then deserting the felled body, possibly to tamper with the crime scene.
By local authorities’ own admission, it was the fortuitous act of a bystander with a smartphone that led to murder charges against Slager. One can’t help but wonder whether, in its absence, the officer would have escaped with impunity.
Once the footage came out, the reaction was quick and appropriate. Local authorities charged Slager, who faces death or a term of 30 years to life, and fired him. The mayor and the police chief visited the Scott family.
The grieving family urged disclosure from the police and calm from others. “I don’t think that all police officers are bad cops,” Scott’s brother, Anthony, said. “But there are some bad ones out there.” The FBI, meanwhile, opened its own investigation.
Even though the case against Slager is moving forward quickly, the events in North Charleston underscore that police officers across the country must change the way they operate. One would think that the minority of officers who violate policing norms might be checked by the knowledge that so many potential witnesses to their acts now carry cameras in their pockets.
Instead of relying on bystanders to provide evidence of wrongdoing, however, police departments should accept and accelerate the deployment of body cameras (which the North Charleston mayor has done in the wake of the shooting). Crime video isn’t always perfect. But, as the Slager episode shows, it can prove crucial.
Many departments already equip patrol cars with dashboard cameras. The probability that video evidence will be useful only increases with the number of cameras rolling during any given event. An extra camera on an officer’s body can help reduce problems stemming from dash cams’ limited vantage. Episodes involving multiple officers will produce multiple electronic points of view.
There’s good reason to believe that the presence of body cameras will change behavior even more than the possible presence of bystander cellphone cameras, encouraging police and those interacting with them to de-escalate.