No dashcams in Ferguson: One less tool in Michael Brown shooting investigation

Last fall, a mother driving a vehicle with five children inside was pulled over for speeding in New Mexico. The dramatic minutes that followed showing a series of confrontations between the driver and officers were caught on a police dashboard video camera and made national news.

The motorist peels away and is stopped again. One of the officers involved is seen on tape firing at the vehicle when the motorist drives away again. The woman is now facing child abuse charges related to the incident, according to CNN affiliate KRQE. The state police officer who shot at the car resigned.

Dashboard cam videos like this one have often played a role in documenting interactions between law enforcement and citizens. When those interactions go terribly wrong, as was the case in the shooting death of Ferguson, Missouri, teenager Michael Brown, it seems logical to ask: Where is the video?

There is none, Ferguson’s police chief said.

Thomas Jackson says his department has 18 patrol cars. This spring, the department purchased two dashboard cameras and two wearable body cameras, but the equipment hasn’t been installed because the department doesn’t have the money to cover that cost, he said.

A dashcam and installation runs about $3,000, he told CNN.

The August 9 shooting has sparked days of protests and violent confrontations between police and the community. The details of what happened between the officer and Brown wildly differ from witness accounts and police accounts, leaving many to wonder whether a dashboard camera could have shed light on what happened.

Technology that improves policing

Dashcams have been available widely since the 1980s, though the first attempt to put a camera in a police car occurred in the 1960s.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s 1980s campaign against impaired driving drove home the need to have video documention of traffic stops. In the 1990s, increased crime related to drugs and more allegations of racial profiling prompted departments to install more dashcams.

But it was the 1991 police beating of African-American Rodney King in Los Angeles that spurred a national discussion about how vital a tool video can be in incidents involving authorities, said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the use of cameras in policing.

A witness to King’s beating shot the footage from his apartment window on his personal video camera. The tape was broadcast repeatedly on national television and played a pivotal role in the criminal trial of the officers involved. Their ultimate acquittal outraged many and sparked the L.A. riots.

The images of Rodney King being pummeled into the pavement also stirred debate — not just among communities, but within police departments who wanted their own recording of their encounters.

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