The growing national trend to outfit more police officers with body cameras and microphones may have influenced the Fort Worth City Council’s decision this week to approve the purchase of 400 additional Axon Flex cameras for local police.
But given some recent, high-profile officer-involved shootings in the region, it’s just as likely that the council’s thoughts were closer to home when they supported the plan to equip up to 600 officers — more than one-third of the force — with the devices.
According to Arizona-based camera-maker Taser International’s website, the cameras (200 of which were purchased by the department last year) employ a 130-degree wide-angle lens that officers can mount on eyeglasses or a collar, allowing them to seamlessly record “digital evidence.”
Such evidence would have been useful in the criminal probe surrounding the tragic death of Jerry Waller, the Fort Worth man shot and killed by Officer Alex Hoeppner in his home last May. Hoeppner and another officer, responding to a burglary call across the street, mistakenly entered Waller’s property and fatally shot the 72-year-old in his garage.
The contentious investigation carried on for months, eventually ending when a grand jury failed to indict Hoeppner based on inconclusive forensic evidence. But it might all have reached a quicker and more certain resolution had any dispute between the officers and Waller been digitally recorded.
Despite concerns raised by police associations that camera use exposes officers to potential abuse by department management, cameras are proven to reduce the volume of residents’ complaints by providing objective footage instead of personal accounts of police encounters.
And when the inevitable disputes arise between officers and suspects or witnesses, the recorded video can provide crucial and definitive evidence that may help expedite investigations and ensure more conclusive outcomes.
But the cameras are useless unless employed under standardized procedures. Any inconsistencies in practice, such as cameras being turned off during disputed events, will justifiably raise concerns.
Only time will tell how effective the Fort Worth department’s largely officer-drafted camera policy will be.
But if properly used, these devices have the potential to increase the level of trust between law enforcement and the greater community.