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Police body cams provide a valuable tool

As the digital age renders traditional definitions of privacy obsolete, it's understandable that people feel uneasy. Photographs are instantly shared on social media, and video clips can surface at any time, not always with the permission or even the knowledge of the people depicted. But there are benefits to this wired world, too.

We speak of the increasingly common practice of police officers wearing compact video cameras that record their encounters with people. Those encounters often are fraught with tension, fear, aggression and violence, and can have tragic consequences.

Such an incident is in the headlines now, after police in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed an unarmed, 18-year-old man. The officers involved were not wearing body cameras, and there is no video evidence of what took place.

In the wake of an officer-involved shooting, when emotions are running high and public trust in the police is plummeting, an impartial video record of what happened is far better than a drawn-out investigation that relies on the recollections of people who were there.

Eyewitness accounts, especially in adrenaline-fueled situations, are notoriously unreliable, as studies have repeatedly shown. Those involved — including police officers — also may be motivated to try to influence the outcome of the investigation.

Police officers who do their jobs correctly, respect the rights of those they encounter on duty and operate within the law should welcome a video record. Allegations of misconduct can affect an officer's career, and a video recording can avoid a lengthy investigation. Talent Chief Mike Moran says the cameras already have cleared up a case in which an officer was accused of not handing a document to a subject. The video clearly showed the officer providing the document and the audio recorded him explaining what he was doing.

The Talent Police Department has equipped all eight of its officers with body cameras. The equipment was provided by the manufacturer, Taser, in exchange for the department's contracting to store the videos on the company's servers. Talent also has dash-mounted cameras in two of its patrol cars.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Department uses dash cameras, but among local departments, only Central Point uses body cams routinely. Ashland has two body cameras it is evaluating and testing. Medford does not use body cameras.

Cost is clearly an obstacle, especially for large departments. Local agencies and the governments that fund them should weigh the expense against the value of an impartial record of police operations.