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Our View: Are police body cams a valuable tool or privacy threat?

Pierce County officials recently rolled out another reason for us to behave ourselves -- and likewise gave us another reason to expect stellar conduct out of those whom society entrusts to protect and serve.

We're talking about the new "Vievu" or body cameras some sheriff's deputies have begun wearing to record -- ideally -- most law enforcement contacts with the public, especially arrests, the issuance of citations and when public contacts become "confrontational, assaultive or enforcement-oriented," according to the department's policy.

Sheriff Nancy Hove issued a statement that the cameras were purchased "in an effort to limit liability, to resolve citizen complaints, to use as a training tool and to complement the officer’s written report.”

Coincidentally, Hudson City Council members voted Jan. 13 to spend about $100,000 equipping squad cars and 21 officers with cameras.

Hudson city prosecutor Max Neuhaus endorsed the initiative "for two significant reasons: money and justice."

Neuhaus cited a recent OWI case where the driver tested at twice the legal limit but claimed he never strayed over the centerline as the arresting officer testified.

“Had there been a video, I believe that the defendant would have pled no contest from the very start,” Neuhaus said.

As he claims, the right picture can be worth a thousand words.

Police Chief Marty Jensen predicts cameras will increase convictions and reduce citizen complaints filed against officers, saving overtime wages and investigation costs.

“There are many instances where the witnesses have stated one thing, but the video evidence has proved them wrong,” wrote Jensen wrote in a memo. Disorderly individuals frequently calm down when officers advise them that a video camera is rolling. Cameras also can be used to monitor the productivity of officers, Jensen said.

Law officers are our civilian soldiers -- the warriors and street fighters we depend upon to protect us from bad guys and remind us when we stray from the rules.

They see us at our best and worst.

Along with the drunks, the disorderly and the disgusted, these amazing body cameras are going to capture images of distressed family members in the midst of medical crisis or freshly visited by death. They'll record the aftermath of domestic abuse and drug reactions, parental rage and spousal remorse, personal drama and desperation -- all the powerful stuff of prime-time TV with our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens as the stars.

It will be the job of Sheriff Hove and Chief Jensen to make sure those sensitive images don't wind up on YouTube, Funniest Home Videos or perhaps even this newspaper's website.

In earlier times, there have been acts of conduct within these departments which were less than praiseworthy. These were events when emotions boiled over and officers lost their cool, threatened co-workers or committed acts unbecoming to one with a badge. Had videos existed, discipline would have been swift and severe. The public would very much have benefited from the presence of video recordings.

Last week, Pierce County refused an open records request by the Pierce County Herald to view a lapel-cam video made moments after an officer arrived at the scene of last month's triple fatality south of Prescott. Although the video is a public document, the sheriff and her counsel ruled against its release on the basis there's still an "ongoing criminal investigation." Denial was also based on respect for the surviving family's rights to personal privacy and maintaining a "minimal level of dignity for minor children who were gravely injured."

The denial letter said the video involves "issues of privacy that outweigh the public's interest in disclosure."

We can accept those reasons and expect law enforcement professionals to hold those with access to sensitive images to the same standard.

In Pierce County, officials say only a few individuals are authorized to view recorded images. We expect Hudson will have a similar policy.

That said, America's highest intelligence agency appears to have thought all its data was secure too -- until Edward Snowden showed them otherwise.

A recent San Jose Mercury News article noted recently that "almost every day brings new revelations about how Big Brother snoops" on our activities.

"We're living life out loud -- secrets and all," the writer noted.

"You can do the stupidest things and pretty soon the whole world knows," said privacy expert Frank Ahern.

Today's generation comfortable with YouTube, SnapChat, Instagram and other sharing apps may not care. But many of us do.

We sincerely hope the elected officials whom we entrust to oversee HPD, the PCSD and other agencies who are likely to jump on the recording bandwagon keep an eye on the situation to assure these tools are used with prudence and professionalism.