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Body cameras for cops only part of the solution 

The actions of Durham police last Friday night were yet another disappointment for our city.

The best outcome for a protest is that the point is made, the demonstrators feel heard and that no one is injured or arrested.

It was unnecessary to arrest Adrienne Harreveld, one of 31 demonstrators arrested for failure to disperse and impeding traffic. She said she merely asked an officer for his badge number after seeing police roughing up her fellow protesters.

Officers who manhandle innocent protesters, those posing no threat to police, other people or property—in other words the majority of demonstrators—should be disciplined. And we should know who they are.

There is a counterargument to be made, however, about the necessity of marching on N.C. 147. The life of a cop, who is trying to stop traffic on the Durham Freeway for the protesters, is definitely in jeopardy. And it's unnecessary to intentionally put a public safety officer in that position, when there are many prominent streets to take over.

Are body cameras the answer to keeping police in line? At the behest of City Council and social justice advocates, the Durham Police Department is testing body cameras on many of its officers, particularly those on the H.E.A.T. (High Enforcement Abatement Teams), who, according to DPD, "confiscate guns, document gang members, make numerous drug arrests, serve search warrants, conduct license check points."

President Obama is planning to ask Congress to appropriate $75 million over three years to pay for 50,000 cameras that would be worn on a lapel or collar. The Body Worn Camera Partnership Program would provide a 50 percent match to states and local governments that buy the cameras and required storage.

Would body cameras on police help curb heavy-handedness? Possibly. Data suggests that in jurisdictions where officers wear body cameras there is a decrease in citizen complaints against police.

But filming interactions between police and the public is not a panacea for injustice. There are serious issues about how the video will be logged, stored and released to the public. It's certainly not out of the question that such video could be illegally edited.

Moreover, film and photographs tell only part of the truth; they can just as easily lie. What happens outside the frame—including the actions of the filmmaker and photographer—often influences what happens inside it.

Eric Garner's death was filmed, yet because of an archaic, slanted and, it's not too strong to say, rigged grand jury system, even the most blatant of evidence can be dismissed, reinterpreted or ignored.

The anger, grief and exasperation spilling into the streets, including those in Durham, is not only about the systematic killing of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but also a justice system that imprisons the innocent based on race and class.

Nearly 150 death row prisoners have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1973, nine of them in North Carolina. That doesn't count the innocent who were executed, or exonerated prisoners who were serving lesser sentences.

Of the exonerations, 77—more than half—were African-Americans who should have never been convicted in the first place. Fifty-eight were white; 12, Latino and two were listed as "other."

Racially loaded juries, dishonest prosecutors, and, unfortunately, at times overworked public defenders, stack the deck against poor defendants.

North Carolina lawmakers cut the budget for the state's Indigent Defense Fund; the Private Assigned Counsel coffer has a $3.2 million shortfall.

While indigent defense is gutted, the grand jury system is robust. It's time to abolish this arcane method, which endows the prosecution with an outsized influence while affording the defense with none.

Body cameras can't cure that.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The eyes have it"

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