You may have seen the viral video making the rounds on social media: a millionaire “Secret Santa” donated $100,000 to the sheriff’s department in Jackson County, Missouri, to hand out to the less fortunate in the community. The generous donor said that this year, he wanted to give law enforcement officers an opportunity to have a positive interaction with members of the community they serve. In the video, officers record the encounters in which they seek out people in run-down cars, homeless people, and other folks who look down on their luck. Instead of giving them a ticket, they give them a thousand dollars!
First of all, this is way cool. I’m even going to admit that I got a little misty-eyed when I watched the video. Shut up. You did too. But there is something troubling that lives beneath the surface of this heartwarming story.
It is an unfortunate fact of life for millions of people in America that if you drive a beat-up car, are homeless, or have the wrong color of skin, you stand a much higher chance of being targeted by law enforcement. And most likely, they won’t be stopping you to make sure your kids have presents under the tree.
Where I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Department of Justice has found that the police department has a pattern and practice of violating the civil rights of people in our city. Since 2010, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) has shot 41 people, killing 27. Many of those killed were a lot like the people targeted in this heartwarming Christmas video. They were poor. They were homeless. They looked like they could have used some help. One particularly shocking incident in which APD officers gunned down a homeless man for camping illegally was recorded by an officer-worn camera, sparking city-wide protests and calls for police reform.
Knowing from our experience in Albuquerque how important officer worn cameras are, I asked the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office whether their deputies wear cameras in the field all the time, not just when they’re deputized by Santa. It turns out that they don’t. They don’t have the budget for it yet. That doesn’t seem right to me. We should make sure officers are always able to wear body-worn cameras on duty, not just when they’re handing out Christmas presents.
In the first year that the Rialto, California, police department outfitted its officers with body-worn cameras, complaints against police dropped 88 percent and officers’ use of force fell by 60 percent compared to the previous year. Body worn cameras not only hold officers accountable, they also protect them from false accusations of wrongdoing, a Department of Justice review of body camera studies cautiously concluded.
What we have here then is potentially a win-win solution that makes both officers and the public safer when body cameras are used judiciously, meaning adequate privacy policies are in place and the technology isn’t turned into a surveillance tool.
If we, like the Secret Santa in Missouri, want officers to have better interactions with the public, there are a few things we can do. We can pass better laws that don’t criminalize people for being poor, sick, or marginalized, and we can make sure that law enforcement officers are equipped with cameras for everyday use.
These steps would go a long way towards the peace on earth and goodwill towards men we could all use a little bit more of this holiday season.