Blog: Transparency in Law Enforcement: The Trend Towards Officer Body Cameras

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by Eileen Waters, Associate Staff

 

The concept of body-mounted cameras worn by police officers is not brand new; in fact, police departments across the United States, England, Brazil, and Australia have been implementing systems with wearable cameras since the early 2000s. [1] Recently in the U.S., public interest has put a brighter spotlight on wearable cameras since an incident in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown was shot by a police officer.[2] Confusion as to what actually happened when the incident occurred has led to debate and speculation about whether there would be less “civil unrest” if the officer who shot Michael Brown had worn a body camera.[3] In an effort to appease those who believe police cameras are the panacea for this subsequent civil unrest, police officers in Ferguson began wearing cameras earlier this month, having been donated by two private companies. [4] Locally, in “Henrico County [Virginia,] police officers will begin wearing body-mounted cameras this fall.”[5] With the acceleration of this trend, it is important to begin analyzing the pros and cons of police officers wearing body cameras.

The benefits of wearable cameras are numerous: the “potential to change the dynamics of police-citizen encounters, to either exonerate or implicate officers in wrongdoing, or provide evidence of citizen misconduct.”[6] “Body-worn cameras can increase accountability” not only for police officers, but also for the citizens they interact with.[7] The city of Rialto, California rolled out a camera program in 2012, and has since reported a 60% reduction in use-of-force incidents and an 88% reduction in filed citizen complaints, “when compared with the year prior to deployment.”[8] William Farrar, the police chief in Rialto, has spoken of cases where citizen have gone to their local police station to file a complaint “and the supervisor was able to retrieve and play on the spot the video of what transpired.”[9] Rialto is not the only city that has experienced a decrease in police-related issues and complaints since employing body cameras, many cities across the country are finding good results with such programs.[10]

Regardless of the benefits, there are also reasons to be wary of this new technology and approach the use of cameras with caution. Arguably, the most prevalent of which is that once a policy of camera-wearing is established by a law enforcement agency, “it will become increasingly difficult to have second thoughts or to scale back” such a program.[11] Many scholars have also strenuously noted privacy concerns that will arise with more camera usage.[12] “It takes little imagination to see how such cameras could augment already ubiquitous CCTV and facial recognition systems, allowing police to retroactively track and monitor innocent passersby.”[13] Proponents of body cameras should ask themselves if they are willing to give up much of their privacy for the program’s benefits. On top of these issues, cameras have a huge economic cost: “agencies that have deployed the cameras spent between $800 and $1,200 for each device.”[14] After the initial cost, it then becomes expensive to store the considerable amount of data created; the New Orleans Police Department will pay “an expected cost of $1.2 million over five years” for 350 body cameras. [15] Overall, there are appreciable costs to body camera programs that need to be weighed with the benefits when deciding whether a program should be implemented.

Currently, public interest seems to be in favor of wearable cameras. This has prompted Congressman Al Green to propose a federal bill last week that would require any “state or local law enforcement agency that receives Federal funds” to use those funds to purchase “body cameras for use by the law enforcement officers employed by that enforcement agency.”[16] On a state level, New Jersey Senator Donald Nocross announced that he is “drafting legislation that would require all police officers to wear body cameras while on patrol.”[17] Lawmakers, perhaps reacting to public opinion, are in the beginning stages of legislating for mandatory use of police body cameras. Now is the time where engaged citizens need to decide if these programs should be implemented nation-wide or not. As this post suggests, the issue is not black and white, and should be discussed and critiqued before concrete legislation is enacted.


 

[1] Joshua Kopstein, Police Cameras are No Cure-all After Ferguson, Aljazeera America (Aug. 29, 2014, 6:00AM), http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/8/ferguson-race-policesurveillancetechnology.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Justin T. Ready & Jacob T.N. Young, Three Myths About Police Body Cams, Slate (Sept. 2, 2014 12:54AM), http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/09/ferguson_body_cams_myths_about_police_body_worn_recorders.html.

[4] William Cummings, Ferguson Police Begin Using Body Cameras, USA Today (Sept. 1, 2014 1:43AM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/09/01/ferguson-police-cameras/14920587/.

[5] Ted Strong & Brandon Shulleeta, Henrico Police to Roll Out Body Cameras for Officers, Richmond Times Disptach (Sept. 14, 2014), http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/local/henrico/henrico-police-to-roll-out-body-cameras-for-officers/article_1fe0fb5e-8752-573f-85e2-07ff33bf562b.html.

[6] Bryce Clayton Newell, Crossing Lenses: Policing’s New Visibility and the Role of “Smartphone Journalism” as a Form of Freedom-Preserving Reciprocal Surveillance, 14 U. Ill. L. Tech. & Pol’y 59, 82 (2014).

[7] Kevin Johnson, Police Body Cameras Offer Benefits, Require Training, USA Today (Sept. 12, 2014 6:21 PM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/09/12/police-body-cameras/15522059/.

[8] Id.

[9] Randall Stross, Wearing a Badge, and a Video Camera, The New York Times (Apr. 6, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/business/wearable-video-cameras-for-police-officers.html?_r=2&.

[10] Id.

[11] Johnson, supra note 6.

[12] Kopstein, supra note 1.

[13] Id.

[14] Johnson, supra note 6.

[15] Id.

[16] Transparency in Policing Act of 2014, H.R. 5407, 113th Cong. (2014).

[17] New Jersey Senator Proposes Bill Requiring Mandatory Body Cams for Police, Police State Daily (Sept. 11, 2014), http://policestatedaily.com/new-jersey-senator-proposes-bill-requiring-mandatory-body-cams-police/.