Our View: Lessons learned
April 19, 2014
The Steamboat Pilot & Today published an in-depth article April 13 about the circumstances surrounding a lawsuit pending against the city of Steamboat Springs on behalf of a resident alleging excessive use of force by police officers.
We will not, in any way, take a position at this time on the merits of the civil suit. However, while preparing the story for publication, we concluded some changes should be made at the police department regardless of the outcome of the civil matter.
The suit stems from a Sept. 17, 2012, incident that resulted when Steamboat police officers observed a man inside an all-night gym under what they interpreted to be suspicious circumstances. The man was temporarily handcuffed and sustained injuries in the process but was not arrested when it was determined he worked at the gym. He subsequently filed a complaint with the police department.
In an interview for this month's article, Police Chief Joel Rae said that his department's policy reviews such complaints under one of two levels. In this case, the District Attorney's office reviewed the claims against the officers and concluded there was no evidence of criminal conduct. In other circumstances, the matter could have been investigated by one of several outside entities, ranging from a private investigator to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
We believe that in all cases, such investigations should be conducted by an outside, independent investigating agency to assure there is no perceived conflict of interest. Instilling public confidence in the process demands this.
Another conclusion we have drawn from this incident is that it is time for the city of Steamboat Springs Police Department and other small law enforcement agencies in Northwest Colorado to take a closer look at the growing use of body cameras for officers across the nation.
Most Americans who own a television set have grown familiar with the way police officers now use dashboard-mounted video cameras on their cruisers to record unfolding traffic stops in detail. No longer must detectives, prosecutors and defense attorneys rely on the memories of patrol officers and the people they arrest when evaluating arrests.
The dashboard cameras offer the additional benefit of potentially modifying the behavior of all parties involved. People contacted by police know that their words and deeds are being recorded. And in many cases, officers may be more vigilant about observing protocol.
Throughout time, we've come to have an appreciation for the discretion and restraint shown by Steamboat Springs police officers in the field. We come at this issue from the perspective of enhancing the safety of everyone involved. In the large majority of cases, we think body cameras will protect officers and citizens both.
The Associated Press has reported in separates stories this year that police agencies in the St. Louis, Mo., area have seen a decline in the use of force by officers, and a test program in the city of Rialto, Calif., saw an 89 percent drop in complaints against officers during its test program and since has equipped its 90 sworn officers with them.
To be sure, the possibility of requiring all patrol officers to wear body cameras raises privacy issues for both the cops and the people they encounter during the course of a shift. Police forces across the country actively are developing policies to address those issues.
The reality is that we live in a world where most of us carry high-resolution video cameras in our pockets, and we can tape and share unexpected encounters with the world in seconds.
In this digital world, doesn't it make sense for police officers to carry body cams both to validate their actions and to reduce the potential for violence?
We think it's only a matter of time before that becomes the norm.