Consider the consequences

Published 9:20 pm Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Law of Unintended Consequences has asserted itself in Suffolk in regards to a program almost nobody opposed when it was originally proposed. And Suffolk’s new problem has revealed an issue that likely will need to be addressed in cities and counties around the nation in the months and years to come.

When Suffolk Police Chief Thomas Bennett announced to council earlier this year that his department would be joining the growing tide of law enforcement agencies whose officers wear body cameras, the justification for the program was simple and clear: better protection for both the public and police.

Controversial situations would be recorded and therefore were more likely to be handled and judged objectively than they would without the cameras. And many potentially explosive encounters between police officers and suspects would be calmed simply by the presence of cameras.

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Since June, all SPD officers have been wearing their cameras when on duty. The cameras are turned on only when the officers are actually performing law enforcement activities — things like traffic stops, arrests and foot chases. Still, the policy creates hundreds of hours of video in an average month.

And that’s where the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play.

Every time someone from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office prepares a court case that involves an officer wearing a body camera, prosecutors must watch all the video involved to ensure there is no pertinent evidence that could help convict or even exonerate the suspect. That means every minute of every foot chase and every resulting arrest, multiplied by the number of officers involved.

The resulting barrage of video has become a great burden on the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, officials there say, noting, for example, that the average drunken driving case that used to require a half hour of preparation now takes an hour and a half to get ready. Multiply those results by the many cases prosecuted in Suffolk each year, and it’s clear there’s an unexpected problem.

Given the number of controversial and violent events around the nation during the past couple of years, Chief Bennett clearly made a good decision to implement the use of body cameras by his officers. But if prosecutors do not have the resources they need to monitor the captured video, the cameras will have been a pointless addition to the police uniform.

Suffolk officials have balked at immediately providing funds to help pay for the extra time put in by prosecutors and their investigators, calling instead for a wait-and-see approach to the matter.

That’s wise, as the program is still in its infancy, and there’s still much to learn about its consequences. However it seems likely that when budget time comes around it will be necessary for the city to consider the unintended consequences attending its decision to embrace video.