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ACLU will provide cameras to tape police
by Jeremy Kohler    St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Entered into the database on Monday, January 02nd, 2006 @ 17:32:15 MST


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St. Louis police officers often say they feel as if people are looking over their shoulders.

That feeling isn't likely to let up this year.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a frequent critic of the city police, says it plans to arm residents of the city's north side with video cameras to record officers' dealings with the public.

The activist group says the department often mistreats and unfairly targets blacks and said it hopes the presence of cameras will act as a deterrent to police abuse and result in smoother dealings between residents and police.

The group said the cameras will start rolling in the summer, after a series of workshops near Fairground Park where blacks can learn about how to protect their rights during dealings with police. The program is called the Racial Justice Initiative.

ACLU leaders notified Police Chief Joe Mokwa of its plans in meetings during the fall. Neither the ACLU nor the police knew of any other previous effort nationally to put officers under private surveillance.

The department has responded with a shrug. While some commanders are leery of having their officers taped, Mokwa said, "It's legal and there is nothing wrong with it."

Sgt. Kevin Ahlbrand, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said: "We don't expect any negative reports to come out of videotaping. Our members are under the assumption that in today's society, they should assume that any time they're in public, they may be being videotaped."

Redditt Hudson, who heads the ACLU's racial justice program, said, "It's not like we needed their clearance."

Mokwa said his officers are used to hearing criticism. On Dec. 22, the chief said, he rushed to Barnes-Jewish Hospital to visit a rookie officer who had been just been shot in the neck.

Mokwa said the first words of the officer, Matthew Greco, were, "I didn't do anything wrong."

But Brenda Jones, the ACLU chapter's executive director, said some criticism of police is warranted.

"People are being stopped by the police for no particular reason," she said. "A number who have run-ins have attempted to file complaints but haven't been able to get to internal affairs."

The group wants to lessen the "tension and potential for violence that has occurred with police patrolling some of the poor neighborhoods in the city," she said.

Mokwa said he hopes the amateur cameramen don't interfere with officers or bait them with bogus calls. He said he disagrees with the premise of the action - he feels most people are happy with his officers' service.

The ACLU only hears from the small percentage of people who feel they have been wronged by police, he said.

He said he thinks most people want police officers to be aggressive in dealing with troublemakers in their neighborhoods.

Mokwa said he hopes the tapes depict officers acting professionally. If the video sexpose problems, he said, "we'd want to know about those anyway."