Body-worn cameras are rather small— they can be comfortably attached to a shirt pocket, collar, hat, or even specially designed sunglasses—but they have generated large amounts of spirited discussion and debate recently. Incidents such as the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the assassination of two uniformed officers sitting in their squad car in Brooklyn, New York, have led to calls from various quarters for greater use of body-worn cameras among police officers.
Last December, the Obama administration put some federal muscle behind body-camera advocacy when it proposed a three-year, $263-million multifaceted community policing initiative. The overall program is aimed at increasing the use of body-worn cameras, expanding training for law enforcement agencies, adding more resources for police department reform, and facilitating community engagement with local law enforcement.
More specifically, the initiative includes a Body-Worn Camera Partnership Program that would provide a 50 percent match in funding to states and localities that purchase body-worn cameras and related equipment. According to White House projections, the proposed $75 million federal investment in the partnership program over three years could help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras.
“For years, this administration has advanced the use of cameras, both body-worn and vehicular, and recognized the numerous benefits to making cameras available to law enforcement officers,” White House officials said in a statement.
Another recent development that kick-started national discussion on body cameras is a hands-on experiment by the police department in Rialto, California, which agreed to use body cameras for the purposes of a yearlong study. Conducted by the Police Foundation in collaboration with criminology researchers, the study, Self-Awareness to Being Watched and Socially-Desirable Behavior: A Field Experiment on the Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force, was the first experimental evaluation of body cameras used in police patrol.
The study ran for 12 months. Every week, half of the city’s uniformed officers were randomly assigned a body camera, and were expected to activate them when they left the patrol car to interact with a civilian. The other half of the force served as the control group and did not wear them.
The results were dramatic. During the yearlong study period, public complaints against officers over the year fell 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force also decreased, significantly, by 60 percent. Additionally, the study found that whenever force was used by the officers with cameras, “the subject is clearly seen to be physically abusive or physically resisting arrest.” But in five incidents involving officers without cameras, “officers resorted to the use of force without being physically threatened,” the study found.
Still, there are several body camera issues, both on-the-ground and in the courts, that concern some experts. Tom Conley, CPP, president and CEO of the Conley Group and a member of the ASIS Law Enforcement Liaison Council, supports the accountability aspect of body camera use, which applies to both police conduct and citizen conduct.
“If you don’t do anything wrong, then it doesn’t matter if there’s a recording of it,” says Conley, who served in the U.S. Navy Police for roughly 25 years earlier in his career and also as a civilian police captain.
But there is also a common misconception that mandatory use of cameras will produce clear-cut evidentiary records of every incident, which is not the case, Conley adds.
As a tool, body cameras have their own weaknesses, Conley explains. They will not pick up everything an officer sees; they do not operate as gyroscopes recording a 360-degree view of a scene. If an officer is chasing suspects on foot, the footage will be shaky and blurry. A blindside attack on an officer from the side or back would be outside the camera’s field of vision. “They’re not robust enough, and their limitations are really problematic,” he says.
Moreover, the “CSI effect” often occurs when body cameras are used in a legal setting, he adds. When camera video is used as evidence, it sets a false standard in juror’s minds that anything important in the incident will be on video. As a result, incident details that are offered in testimony but are not recorded may be given much less weight by jurors, if not outright dismissed. “You get a portion of the evidence that then becomes the whole of the evidence,” Conley says. “It’s really an impediment to telling the entire story.”
And when something is not recorded, jurors may suspect improper behavior on the part of the officer. “They’re always going to come off in a fight—always,” Conley says. “[And] if it falls off, they’re going to say, ‘Well, he took it off on purpose.’”
Finally, there’s also the problem of cost—not just of the camera itself, but the expense of storing all the video. “The management of data is very expensive, especially if you have to maintain a chain of custody,” Conley says.
Given these types of concerns, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) recently conducted a study, Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence, to get a better handle on the issues involved. “Unfortunately, there have been few balanced discussions of the merits and drawbacks of police officer body-worn cameras, and even fewer empirical studies of the technology in the field,” writes the report’s author, Michael White.
The OJP report investigated the pros and cons of body camera use, including claims that they increase transparency, have a “civilizing” effect on officer behavior, and improve the evidence pool for arrests and prosecution. However, the report found that such claims had not been sufficiently tested, or that the evidence was anecdotal and not scientifically sound. As a result, the report calls for more independent research on body cameras, and for professional law enforcement organizations to develop guidelines for the use and implementation of body cameras.
“Simply put, there is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police,” White writes. “Departments considering body-worn cameras should proceed cautiously.”
For police departments that do decide to move forward, another arm of the Justice Department, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), in conjunction with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), sponsored another recent report titled Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned.
This implementation report discusses issues that a law enforcement agency planning on using body cameras should consider, such as privacy, the impact on community relationships, and officer concerns.
In the end, the report recommends that police agencies should first introduce the cameras in pilot programs and engage officers and the community during implementation. The report also recommends that agencies carefully craft body camera policies that strive to balance accountability and privacy rights, and preserve the relationships that exist between officers and members of the community.
And the report offers one final cautionary note—the decision to adopt body cameras should be made very carefully, because rescinding it in the future will be no easy feat. “Once an agency travels down the road of deploying body-worn cameras, it will be difficult to reverse course, because the public will come to expect the availability of video records,” the report says.