Poll: Just about everyone wants police to wear body cameras

The latest CBS News poll is chock full of depressing news.

The latest survey found that race relations are in danger of regressing in the wake of the protests resulting from the failure of grand juries in Missouri and New York to indict white police officers responsible for the deaths of unarmed black men.

Americans are evenly divided on whether race relations are “generally good” or bad; 45 percent believe interracial relations are fine while 43 percent disagree. The number of respondents who say race relations are good has dropped 10 points since the spring and is currently the lowest level CBS News has recorded since 1997.

“Blacks are more critical than whites,” CBS News reported. “54 percent of blacks think race relations are bad, while whites are more divided: 47 percent called race relations good, 42 percent bad.”

While opinions are sharply divided as to whether the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision not to indict the officer responsible for shooting Michael Brown was justified, more agree that New York City Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo was irresponsible when he applied a prohibited chokehold to Eric Garner. Only 14 percent of white respondents said that this use of force was justified, and just 3 percent of African-American survey participants agreed.

While there is clearly a large racial divide on issues relating to police brutality, CBS News did find that there is some consensus about the need for reforms in the wake of a New York City grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo for his role in Garner’s death.

“Six in 10 Americans think police officers need better training to help handle confrontations with civilians, while a third think most police have this training already,” CBS reported. There is even stronger agreement on the need for on-duty police officers to wear body cameras: 91 percent of respondents agreed with this measure.

This near uniformity of opinion is reflected in public policy. It seems that virtually every day another major metropolitan police force is announcing their intention to outfit officers with cameras. Some police are as eager as criminal justice reform advocates to see cameras become standard issue equipment for on-duty officers.

There are, however, some critical questions about the potential for negative effects on American civil liberties that might arise from the issuing of body cameras to police officers.

Yahoo tech columnist Rob Pegoraro recently asked some probing questions about the practical effects of police body cameras. He observed that the ACLU has expressed concerns about the possibility that police officers’ civil liberties may be violated if they are forced to wear active body cameras when they are not working a shift.

Moreover, there are few protections on just what the footage police shoot can be used for. “[National-security counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center Jeramie] Scott warned against combining facial-recognition technology with body-camera footage — something Chicago has been doing with footage from its surveillance cameras,” Pegoraro warned.

Finally, there are no guidelines governing how long body camera footage can be kept on record, prompting concerns the creation of a permanent database of footage featuring average citizens who are not and never were involved in criminal activity.

The Yahoo columnist closes by advising the public to continue to use their cellphone cameras to record police abuse if and when they see it. “It’s your right as a citizen, and it just might be your obligation, too,” he concluded. What’s more, it may still be a more effective tool for ensuring police accountability than body cameras will ever be.