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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Body cameras would keep cops and the public honest

Las Vegas police Sgt. Peter Ferranti models a

Las Vegas police Sgt. Peter Ferranti models a body camera Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, in Las Vegas. The camera is the same type now being used by about 200 street officers in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) Credit: AP

If one thing could improve the tenor of the debate over events in Ferguson, Missouri, it would be having some idea of what actually happened. So yeah, I support body cameras for cops.

President Barack Obama has proposed federal funding for 50,000 cameras. It's a start. The units are generally about three inches long, clip to uniforms, and transmit video for storage via the Internet, usually while recharging.

In Rialto, California, population 102,000, body cameras were rolled out in 2012. In the following 12 months, complaints against officers declined 88 percent and use-of-force incidents by officers decreased almost 60 percent.

Maybe cops behaved better. Maybe civilians behaved better. Maybe the fact that the recording existed prevented baseless complaints. I don't much care why the improvement happened. I just think police-civilian interaction improves when it's recorded.

Michael Brown, black and 18, was repeatedly and fatally shot by police Officer Darren Wilson, white and 28, in August. And we know that shortly before being shot by Wilson, Brown stole cigars and shoved a store clerk. Everything else, though, is open to debate because the many witnesses disagree. They disagree with each other, and in many cases their testimony disagrees with itself, having changed over time.

The fiercest arguing is created by a lack of information combined with prejudices on both sides, which are not quite the same as deep hatreds. The difference is important.

You can have a bias against cops, but see a video of an enraged and scary man charging a police officer and say, "While I have no love for the man in blue, I'd have shot that guy a bunch of times, too. He was coming strong, with scary and murderous intent."

You also can have a bias against young black men but see a video of a white cop repeatedly shooting an unarmed young black man whose arms were up in a gesture of surrender and say, "While I have no love for a thug who steals cigars or messes with clerks, no way did the cop need to keep shooting at him. The kid should probably be in jail, but he shouldn't be dead."

I believe we are a nation of people who often have certain prejudices. We tend to side with people who look like us, live like us, talk like us, earn like us and are as old as us. I don't believe we are a people consumed by fierce hatreds. There are a few infected with such poison, but not many.

No information will sway those few true haters. The cop haters will always believe the cops are wrong, and the black haters will always believe blacks are wrong, but mostly nobody cares what such people think . . . because we know they don't really think at all.

To me, cop cams aren't controversial. The mayor of Boston says his officers don't need them, calling the idea "a distraction." Earlier this year, a police union in Miami fought a plan to use the cameras, arguing they would "distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations." Some argue the cameras invade privacy, but the American Civil Liberties Union is now in favor.

Officers have no right to privacy on duty. And the civilians they come in contact with, mostly in public, don't either.

Equipping 700,000 officers in the United States with body cameras could be done for around $1 billion, and federal funding isn't necessarily needed. Police departments usually have forfeiture funds. This is a perfect example of how best to deploy such money.

Doing so would limit confrontations between officers and civilians, which means fewer insurance payouts for departments. Even when those confrontations are not prevented, the cameras can give us information, which is more useful than bias in deciding who is right and who is wrong.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.