The outrage over the death of alleged gang member Mark Duggan, shot twice by London police officers in 2011, won’t go away. In the weeks after his death, riots spread from London to other cities around the country. Five people died in the riots, which also caused thousands of pounds of damage. This week, there were angry scenes outside the courthouse after a jury found Duggan’s death was lawful even though he had no weapon in his hand. Duggan’s family were heartbroken. They told reporters afterwards that their son had been “executed” by police.
It’s obvious that Duggan’s death was a tragedy for everyone who knew him, and there are serious questions about the way that the investigation was handled. But there’s a glimmer of hope in the aftermath of the inquest. The U.K. police force, already relatively restrained in their use of firearms by U.S. standards, have indicated they may force officers who use guns to wear cameras to record their conduct.
It would have been hugely helpful to have an actual record of Duggan’s shooting. One of the reasons that the Duggan trial has proved so controversial is that a number key events in a chaotic situation have been disputed. Authorities at first implied that Duggan, allegedly on his way to avenge his cousin, had shot at police officers, but were later forced to admit that he hadn’t. A bullet that hit a police radio turned out to be an officer’s. Police also said that Duggan had a handgun in his waistband, but immediately after the shooting they reportedly couldn’t find a gun at all, and the family later suggested that a gun found 20 feet away from the scene had been planted. Some witnesses even said Duggan had been shot while pinned to the ground by police. With basic facts so fuzzy, how can we expect Duggan’s parents to accept their son’s death?
In response to these discrepancies, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Chief Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, announced today that British police will begin trials for putting cameras on armed officers.
The hope is that, in complicated, chaotic situations like Duggan’s, the cameras can provide useful evidence to complement (or contradict) testimony from officers and other witnesses. But there may be other benefits. One recent study from Rialto, Calif. found that officers not wearing cameras instigated violence almost 30% of the time, while those wearing cameras almost never did. During the yearlong study, Mike Riggs of the Atlantic Cities reports, complaints against Rialto police declined 88% over the previous year.
According to the Associated Press, the London police trial will begin on April 1, though it is not clear how many of the U.K. capital’s 2,300 firearms officers will be involved. That number is important — most police officers in the U.K. do not carry firearms. In England and Wales, there are fewer than 7,000 trained firearms officers. Between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012, there firearms officers were called for 14,261 operations. They discharged their weapons five times. 50-four people have been shot dead by U.K. police since 1990, according to data compiled by the charity Inquest.
For contrast, the Bureau of Labour Statistics says there are around 780,000 police officers in the U.S., almost all of whom are armed. Nationally, the number of killings by police officers ruled justifiable each year runs into the hundreds. In 2012, 12 people were shot dead by police in New York City alone.
While some police officers (including the union that represents the NYPD) have resisted being forced to wear cameras, others have embraced them. The recording can also be a protection for the officer, it turns out.
“In this job, we’re frequently accused of things we haven’t done, or things were kind of embellished, as far as contact,” police officer Ben Sias told NPR.”And the cameras show a pretty unbiased opinion of what actually did happen.”
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