Police Body Cameras Friend or Foe
From online systems to cell phones, citizens are connected via technology twenty-four hours a day. The nation’s dependence on technology such as cell phones has impacted all aspects of life including police departments. Technological advancements have provided tools to assist police departments in addressing current situations. One case where this technology would have been beneficial is that of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. Michael Brown was an unarmed, 18-year-old African American who was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Officer Wilson claimed that Brown had attacked him, but witnesses asserted that Brown was surrendering when he was shot (“Police Body Cameras: Should law enforcement agents wear body cameras?”). “Protesters demanded the city release dash-cam footage of the incident, but the city maintained no such footage existed. In November 2014, a grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for the shooting, a decision that prompted several nights of protests and rioting in Ferguson” (“Police Body Cameras: Should law enforcement agents wear body cameras?”). If dashboard camera or body camera footage had been available, the frustrations this case evoked may have been avoided. The benefits that body cameras provide are not without criticism and studies have demonstrated that the use of cameras has “no significant impact on use of force by officers, or citizen complaints against officers” (Doleac). However, with clearly outlined policies and guidelines, body cameras can become a vital tool in police departments. Police body cameras should be integrated as one part of a comprehensive program to improve officer accountability and public relations.
One of the primary benefits of police body camera usage is increased accountability of both officers and the accused. Body camera footage can provide documented evidence of incidents and possibly ease public opinion (see fig 1). “In a rare instance of agreement, city councils, civil rights groups and police chiefs say the cameras can make police operations more transparent, hold police and civilians accountable for their actions and reduce police-civilian conflict” (Mantel). Official documentation is even more necessary with the advancement of cell phone technology. Cell phones have become an informal method of collecting video evidence in crime situations; however, informal videos can be biased.
With advances in handheld camera and cell technology, bystanders are beginning to record police-civilian encounters with greater frequency. Although these bystander videos have proven useful, law enforcement agencies should hold themselves accountable by requiring officers to wear body mounted cameras with video and audio recording capabilities. These self-recorded videos would help to clarify even the most curious of cases better than bystander recording and perhaps provide incentive for officers to always remain on their best behavior (Nunes).
Proponents assert that the cameras will push officers to act in accordance with policies as well as protecting those officers from false accusations. The use of police body cameras can also benefit the accused. In some cases, the accused are exonerated by video from body camera footage. “Police departments across the United States are facing a crisis of confidence. Bystanders have recorded on cell phone video a large number of incidents where officers appear to unjustifiably harm or kill civilians, sparking outrage across the country and making us wonder what additional abuses our cameras have missed” (Doleac). Body cameras could assist in making the police departments more transparent, and a result, improve public relations.
The use of body cameras evokes issues regarding privacy. Opponents question whether body camera footage infringes on the privacy of the accused, the public witnesses, and even the officers using them. “Some have noted that body cameras have the potential to invade the privacy of the people being recorded, particularly in instances in which encounters with police occur in a private home” (“Police Body Cameras: Should law enforcement agents wear body cameras?”). Lawmakers and the public worry that the use of body camera footage without specified guidelines will lead to issues with privacy and surveillance (Ripley and Williams). Recordings of public encounters could expose victims of sexual assault or domestic violence as well as exposing individuals with conditions such as autism or addiction. Opponents raise concerns that this exposure could lead to distrust and make witnesses reluctant to come forward. However, with proper guidelines, many of these issues can be minimized.
Police body cameras can be beneficial in providing accountability while addressing privacy concerns if secured with specific policies. Procedures must be in place regarding camera use and the training of officers (White). Issues such as when cameras must be turned on and off and how footage is used are of primary concern. As a result, local police departments are developing their own policies. For example, The Los Angeles Police Department is implementing 7,000 cameras and a policy that it negotiated with its police union (Dillon and Mather). The police department in Parker, Colorado reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union for assistance on its policy. It clarifies when officers must turn on cameras, specific victim’s rights, and rules regarding the release of footage (Neuhauser). In Ferguson, Missouri, the high-profile city where Michael Brown was shot and killed, the community worked to compile
a sensible set of comprehensive demands, ranging from the adoption of federal legislation to end racial profiling to local measures ensuring accountability for rogue police officers, protections to give journalists and community members the right to observe police activities, and limits on military equipment acquisition. The End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) – included among the community’s demands in Ferguson – would address the problem by requiring police departments to track and disclose the impacts of police activities. It would establish the transparency that body cameras promise but fail to deliver (Buttar).
Former President Obama implemented a $263 million package to assist in the purchase of cameras (“Police body cams: Will they really help?”). “At the same time, state lawmakers have tried and failed to pass a half-dozen major bills to address a range of issues including when officers turn the cameras on and off and when the public might see the video” (Dillon). (see fig. 2) However, despite the work that many state and local law enforcement departments are doing, there is still no national legislation regarding the use of body cameras.
Police body cameras can be an asset to departments and the public if incorporated as part of a regulated system focused on accountability. Body cameras can provide documented evidence of police encounters with the public and, as a result, provide support for both the accused and the officers and improve public relations. According to Washington Post writer Radley Balko:
merely having cameras isn’t enough: ‘In addition to making these videos public record, accessible through public records requests, we also need to ensure that police agencies implement rules requiring officers to actually use the cameras, enforce those rules by disciplining officers when they don’t and ensure that the officers, the agencies that employ them, and prosecutors all take care to preserve footage, even if the footage reflects poorly on officers’ (“Police body cams: Will they really help?”).
The implementation of a strictly monitored program that includes guidelines, appropriate supervision, and transparency is essential to the successful use of police body cameras. Police body cameras can be an effective tool for increasing accountability and improving public confidence if they are one part of a clearly, outlined plan.
Buttar, Shahid. “Body Cameras Will Not Stop Police Brutality.” Police Brutality, edited by Michael Ruth, Greenhaven Press, 2016. Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints In Context, http://link.galegroup.com.ezrcc.vccs.edu:2048/apps/doc/EJ3010156269/OVIC?
u=viva2_vccs&sid=OVIC&xid=1ac3eff7. Accessed 7 July 2018. Originally published as “Police Violence? Body Cams Are No Solution,” truth-out.org, 6 Jan. 2015.
Dillon, Liam, and Kate Mather. “Rules for Body Cameras Are Left to Local Police Departments as Lawmakers Struggle to Pass Statewide Regulations.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 13 Jan. 2017, www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-sac-police-body-cameras-no-laws-20170113-story.html.
Doleac, Jennifer L. “Do Body-Worn Cameras Improve Police Behavior?” Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 25 Oct. 2017, www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2017/10/25/do-body-worn-cameras-improve-police-behavior/.
Fig. 1. Dost, Meredith. “Bipartisan Support for More Body Cameras on Police Officers.” Pew Research Center U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 8 Dec. 2014, www.people-press.org/2014/12/08/sharp-racial-divisions-in-reactions-to-brown-garner-decisions/bipartisan/.
Fig. 2. Urban Institute. “State-by-State Breakdown of Body Cam Laws.” Police Body-Worn Cameras Legislation Tracker, Urban Institute, 1 Jan. 2017, apps-staging.urban.org/features/body-camera-update/.
Mantel, Barbara. “High-Tech Policing.” CQ Researcher, 21 Apr. 2017, pp. 337-60, library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017042100.
Neuhauser, Alan. “Police Have Body Cameras, but Few Rules.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report LP, 23 Nov. 2017, www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-11-23/policies-police-body-cameras.
Nunes, Iesha S. “Hands up, Don’t Shoot: Police Misconduct and the Need for Body Cameras.” UF Law Scholarship Repository, Florida Law Review, 2016, scholarship.law.ufl.edu/flr/vol67/iss5/6/.
“Police Body Cameras: Should law enforcement agents wear body cameras?” Issues & Controversies, Infobase Learning, 26 Aug. 2015, http://icof.infobaselearning.com.ezrcc.vccs.edu:2048/recordurl.aspx?ID=14993.
“Police body cams: Will they really help?” CNN Wire, 5 Dec. 2014. Opposing Viewpoints In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A392523962/OVIC?u=viva2vccs&sid= OVIC&xid=be78f855.
Ripley, Amanda, and Timothy Williams. “Body Cameras Have Little Effect on Police Behavior, Study Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/us/police-body-camera-study.html.
White, Michael D. “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence.” National Institute of Corrections, The United States Department of Justice, 28 Nov. 2017, nicic.gov/police-officer-body-worn-cameras-assessing-evidence.