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Caledonia incident illustrates value of body cameras

Police body-camera footage from Jan. 26,2018, shows the NBA Bucks guard Sterling Brown talking to arresting police officers after being shot by a stun gun in a Walgreens parking lot in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee city attorney is recommending a revised offer to settle a lawsuit brought by Milwaukee Bucks’ guard Sterling Brown, who was taken to the ground, shocked with a Taser and arrested during an encounter with police in 2018. City Attorney Tearman Spencer is recommending a $750,000 payment and an admission that Brown's constitutional rights were violated during the arrest. (Milwaukee Police Department via AP, File)

Police body-camera footage from Jan. 26,2018, shows the NBA Bucks guard Sterling Brown talking to arresting police officers after being shot by a stun gun in a Walgreens parking lot in Milwaukee. (Milwaukee Police Department via AP, File)

We’ve been advocates of body cameras for law enforcement officers for many years. They give validity to two adages:

— The camera doesn’t lie.

— A picture is worth a thousand words.

An illustration of the value of body cameras came late last month, when a viral video of a traffic stop gave the initial appearance of a Caledonia police officer acting less than honorably.

During the July 21 traffic stop, a passenger in the front seat of the vehicle recorded a Caledonia officer as he walked toward the vehicle. The officer is seen tossing a tiny white object into the back seat of the vehicle.

If you’ve read our reports on criminal complaints, you know that corners of plastic sandwich bags are used to package illegal drugs.

From the perspective of the front-seat passenger, it looked bad. It did appear as though the officer was tossing something into the back seat that didn’t belong there. It seemed entirely possible that the officer was planting evidence.

But the officers’ body cameras gave us a 360-degree view, a broader perspective.

Caledonia Police Chief Christopher Botsch pledged a full, transparent investigation. Which he delivered.

The body-cam footage, combined with Chief Botsch’s Facebook post regarding his investigation, bore out why only a speeding ticket — the speeding vehicle was the probable cause for the stop — was issued and no occupant of the vehicle was taken into custody: The baggie corner was found on one of the passengers, inspected and found to contain no illegal substances, the chief said.

The viral video of the officer tossing the tiny baggie into the back seat was not the planting of evidence, but the return of a legal item to the car. Chief Botsch conceded that the officer’s judgement in taking that action wasn’t the best: “We would discourage officers from discarding items into a citizen’s vehicle,” he wrote. But neither was it nefarious.

The totality of the incident — the initial viral video, followed by the release of the body-camera footage — is a ringing endorsement of body cameras, and illustrates a point we have made many times in the space:

Body cameras provide proof when officers are acting in accordance with the law, and give visual evidence of what an officer is dealing with in a given situation.

Only those acting outside the law, whether officer or civilian, have anything to fear from an officer’s body camera.

– Racine Journal Times

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