116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Iowa State Patrol could soon catch up to other departments in the state by outfitting officers with body-worn cameras.
Body cams have been widely adopted by law enforcement agencies over the past decade or so. When the devices are used correctly, they can give an unbiased account of an incident when an officer and a suspect’s versions of the story differ.
State troopers currently have vehicle-mounted cameras and audio recorders on their uniforms but technology upstart costs have so far kept them from deploying body cameras. A $485,000 funding request from the Iowa Legislature would cover the “final steps” to deploying the cameras, The Gazette’s Erin Jordan recently reported.
That will bring the State Patrol in line with other Iowa police organizations. The Gazette and other members of the Iowa Newspaper Association reported last year that 90 percent of more than 200 agencies in Iowa responding to a request for information are using body cameras.
We urge lawmakers to sign off on the funding and in general we support the use of police body cameras. But this also is an opportunity to again highlight the potential shortfalls of this technology.
Body cameras are often pitched as law enforcement oversight and accountability tools but that’s not always how it works in practice. Without strong rules to dictate how the collected video footage is managed, there is a stark power imbalance between police and the public — we might only see videos that affirm officers’ accounts, and clips that show misconduct might be kept from public view.
Language in Iowa Code allows some police investigation records to be kept confidential but agencies often stretch that law past its intended limits.
As one recent example, a Grundy Center man was accused last year of shooting and killing a State Patrol officer. That force doesn’t yet have cameras but officers from other agencies on the scene did. They have declined to make the footage public in the first-degree murder case.
And of course the cameras don’t prove anything if they’re not turned on.
Also last year, a Des Moines Register journalist was arrested and charged during an aggressive police sweep of a Black Lives Matter protest. The officer who detained her had a camera but didn’t switch it to record. The journalist was later acquitted but officers usually face no formal repercussions for failing to record such incidents in violation of their own department policies.
Cameras have the potential to bolster trust in law enforcement but only under the right governance. This is not a be-all end-all solution for police accountability.
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