Lowell native lobbies for police body cams

A body camera worn by a Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety officer. (Oct. 6, 2014)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan native is working with a U.S. senator to put police body cameras front and center in the discussion of police transparency.

Leighton Watson's photo of Howard University students. (Courtesy)
(The Howard University photo.)

Leighton Watson was the organizer of a photo shows students at Howard University in Washington D.C. in the “hands up, don’t shoot” stance that became a symbol of protest after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 9. The photo, originally posted to Twitter and retweeted more than 40,000 times, went viral when the unrest at the St. Louis suburb was at its peak.

“The picture showed that A) we stand in solidarity, but B) it could have been any one of us,” Watson, a Howard University senior and Student Association executive president, told 24 Hour News 8.

The success of the photo thrust Watson, also a Lowell High School graduate, into the spotlight. He organized vigils in DC and a student trip to Ferguson. He has also appeared on national news outlets to speak on the larger issue of police transparency.

He believes body cameras on police uniforms that record officers’ interactions with citizens in their entirety is a solution for change.

“Often times, that shows a contrasting narrative between what the officer is saying and what the person who’s being persecuted, killed, shot is saying. And a lot of times it’s proving the individual — that no one gave them credibility — is actually right,” Watson said.

Wastson is now working with staffers at Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office in crafting legislation for police body cams.

“So the idea is before any police department gets federal funding — whether it be from the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, the Pentagon, etc. — they would have to implement this police body camera,” Watson said.

A handful of West Michigan police departments have adopted the use of uniform cameras in recent months and more are considering getting them, saying they protects the integrity both officers and the public — but not the Grand Rapids Police Department. In a recent interview with 24 Hour News 8 GRPD Chief David Rahinsky expressed his reservations.

“I have concerns more that people that have issues in their neighborhood and may want to share some of those concerns may be more reluctant to do so,” Rahinsky said.

The son of a former police officer himself, Watson views the issue through a different lens.

“As far as the accountability on both the citizens’ and the police department’s end, it increases accountability across the board,” Watson said.

Watson hopes to see more progress on his proposal now that the midterm election is over. He said he already has support from the White House, but would like the legislation to be bipartisan.

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