Traverse City commissioners are right to support installing video cameras in city police cars, pushing the city into the mainstream of modern policing and taking a big step toward protecting police officers and the public alike.
Some commissioners had balked at a proposal to add video cameras to 10 city patrol cars when it appeared it would cost the city $40,000. When that price came down to $20,000, Mayor Michael Estes dropped his earlier opposition; three other commissioners voiced support.
The city has had video cameras in seven patrol cars since about 2004, but only two of the cameras are functional today because their software is incompatible with in-car computers.
The new push makes great sense and offers real protections to both officers and individuals who get pulled over or come into contact with police arriving on the scene of a fight or other altercation.
Patrol car videos have been crucial to resolving he said/he said disputes about what transpired in a traffic stop or some other contact between civilians and police. Many an officer has been cleared of claimed wrongdoing by an in-car video and cameras have offered proof of assaults on police or victims.
But in-car cameras also offer protection to citizens from assaults or bullying by police officers who know their actions are being videotaped. Cameras can also provide proof of what really went on during a traffic stop or any contact between officers and individuals within the range of the camera or its microphones.
Without a camera to provide an unbiased account of a traffic stop, it is usually an individual's word against a police officer's that determines if someone is charged or ticketed. And like it or not, prosecutors and jurors often have a predisposition to believe a police officer's interpretation of events over that of someone accused of a crime.
The city debate was a reminder that the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department doesn't have cameras in any of its patrol cars, a major shortcoming in a department that enforces the law in all of Grand Traverse County outside Traverse City.
Sheriff Tom Bensley has said it would be too expensive to mount cameras in all of the county's two dozen or so patrol cars. Just last week undersheriff Nate Alger repeated the claim. "We have so many cars it makes it cost-prohibitive," he said. "We've not had a need."
That's debatable — and subject to change without notice. All it takes is one incident to bring home the need for cameras to protect the innocent — officers and citizens alike.